Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Aspen, where the truffles flow like...

I think I'm about to turn in to a truffle. There are worse things of course, and I never thought I'd get sick of the heady scent of such an exclusive gourmet treat. However, four days in Aspen almost did it. The snow was beautiful, the powder light and soft and there wasn't a patch of ice or crunch in site. No death cookies, as my cousin would say, referring to those little chips of ice that come off the combed lines of the groomed runs. There may have been no death cookies, but we came dangerously close to something else...Death by Truffles.

In our stay there, we had truffles or truffle oil at least once a day, and more than once, twice a day. Truffles are a rare fungi that grow underground in wooded areas of France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and closer to home, Oregon. They can be white or black. The main difference being that black truffles retain their aroma longer than white ones, but the white ones have a more intense, if fleeting aroma. Truffles are renowned for their musky, earthy and pungent scent, which, when mature, can be smelled from above ground by specially trained truffle dogs and pigs. Truffles are so precious, most truffle hunters go out at night with their animals, in order to keep the whereabouts of their truffle hunting grounds a secret.

Truffles vary in size from a walnut to that of a softball. The season for most truffles falls between September and May and they can command up to $500 per pound. A more inexpensive way to savor truffles is through truffle oil. In real truffle oil, left over pieces and shavings of truffles are infused in olive oil. Because of their potency, they really can transform regular olive oil in to something other worldly. Sadly, many truffle oils on the market are artificial, and though they deliver something similar to real truffle flavor, they aren't truly authentic. However, a drizzle on pizza, soup, salad or roast chicken is a wonderful way to experience somthing close to the delicate yet intense flavor and aroma of truffles without breaking the bank. If you do have a chance though, I recommend breaking the bank on them at least once in your life.

Here is a brief retelling of our exploration of Aspen through truffles:

At Ajax tavern there are two lovely truffle dishes. The first is an enormous plate of perfectly cooked french fries topped with shaved parmesan cheese and truffle oil. A perfect way to treat yourself after a long day on the slopes. They smelled so delicious that the table next to us kept looking over at our table and finally broke down, asking us what smelled so good. We offered them a taste of our plate (it was more that enough for three) and after trying ours, they proceeded to ordered two for their table. We also had a go at Ajax's raviolis filled with goat cheese and beets, drizzled with truffle oil and sprinkled with crispy sage. Delicious, light and heady at once.

Cache Cache Bistro, an small and ambient French restaurant in the middle of town (with a very charming maitre d' who discovered a table for us despite our lack of a reservation) offered up more truffle delights. Our table tried a beet salad with goat cheese, wilted leeks and lemon-truffle vinaigrette which was again, wonderful and light. Cache Cache also does a double time truffle appetizer: sea scallops with poached egg, black truffles and truffle butter sauce. It manages to be both glorious and simple all at the same time.

Our last, and most memorable culinary adventure occurred at The Ritz's Willow Creek Bistro at Highlands. Executive Chef Mathew Zubrod and his team prepared a nine course chef's tasting menu for us that explored Aspen's lavish culinary character while paying homage to local farmers and straight forward composition and flavor. Zubrod, recognized by the James Beard Foundation as one of America’s Great Hotel Chefs, loosened up our palates with a tasty amuse bouche of minature grilled cheese filled with (of course) truffles and Saint Andre Brie. Over the course of two hourse, he went on to dazzle us with seared foie gras over honey crisp apple matchsticks and the most meltingly tender braised short ribs I've ever had, accompanied by trufled mac n'cheese, to go along with our (I swear) unplanned general theme. Other highlights included a champagne poached morsel of lobster tale and a flawless composition of locally grown micro greens accompanying a terrine of goat cheese, red peppers and confit of beets. The pastry chef finished us off with a text book perfect pistachio ice cream profiterole.

Chef Zubrod is in the middle

Aspen is an extravagant town with a duly deserved reputation for wonderful skiing, great food and no end of fun. There are a multitude of fabulous restaurants to choose from, and from there, a seemingly endless menu parade of culinary indulgences to decide upon. Other treats not to missed that I discovered are the blackened tuna at Kenichi and the Patron Silver margaritas at Little Nell's bar (does apr├Ęs ski get any better?) Luckily there's plenty of skiing to be had and dancing at the Caribou to balance it all out.

Truffle Roasted Chicken

1 organic, free range chicken
1 black truffle or 1 Tbs. truffle oil
chicken stock and white wine (optional)

Heat oven to 450 F. Rub chicken with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Slice truffle in to thin slices and gently place under skin covering breast. If using truffle oil, place a half teaspoon under skin on each breast and massage in, and rub another 2 teaspoons over the whole bird. Heat roasting pan in the oven for 5-10 minutes and then carefully place chicken in the hot pan. Roast one hour without basting. Let the bird rest 15-20 minutes before carving.

If you want a sauce, deglaze the hot pan with with a quarter cup of white wine and a half cup of chicken stock, stirring up all the brown bits from the bottom and simmering for a minute or two over the stove until slighlty thik and golden. Remove from heat and whick in one tablespoon of cold butter. Serve on the side or over the carved chicken.


Gen Fulton said...

Chef E. Claire,

I never noticed that Aspen had so many options for expanding one's truffle palate and I live here! Look at you, having the ultimate Aspen Experience - dining at Cache Cache Bistro, Ajax Tavern and (the best restaurant in the valley, in my opinion) Willow Creek Bistro; dancing at the all-exclusive, members-only Caribou Club and shredding through the light, buttery slopes of Ajax and Aspen Highlands (the local's favorite mountain).

Thanks for writing about wonderful Aspen. Next time, your dining experience will expand your palate even more...

Gareth Renowden said...

You really ought to know that virtually all truffle oils are artificial - they've never been near the real thing. Infusing oils with real truffle is possible, but to get a decent hit of flavour, you need to use a lot of truffle. It's easier to buy a big bottle of synthetic truffle aroma and splash it into the oil. It's something like the real thing, but a cartoon version. The "real truffle experience" can only be obtained in dishes that use real, fresh truffles. Sorry.