Black Truffle Pilaf
Photo: Ajna Jaisinghani / Contributor
The fragrant edible delight of a prized wild truffle, the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus, was discovered around the third century BC. It became the secret pleasure of Roman peasants for many centuries. Pigs, or truffle hogs, have a great sense of smell and were used to identify truffles as deep as 3 feet underground. Truffles gained popularity among the elite toward the end of the Renaissance when Europeans were abandoning their penchant for Eastern spices in favor of local flavors. The 17th-century French gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin called truffles the “diamonds of the kitchen." He noted that black Perigord truffles started appearing in Parisian markets to be consumed only at dinner tables of great nobles.
Though I had heard of truffles, I had never actually seen or tasted them until I traveled to Italy. It happened to be peak truffle season that late November, and one evening, my kids and I accidentally walked into a truffle festival in the middle of Rome. Three hours later, after inhaling, tasting and exploring all there was to be known about this aromatic tartufi, my kids dragged me away. This was after I surreptitiously haggled with truffle traders for a few jars to carry back. Two weeks later, they appeared on the menu at my then-restaurant Indika as a stuffing for a potato samosa. I can still remember standing in the back kitchen being ensconced in the earthy, oaky and nutty aroma when we broke into a hot samosa.
A few years later, the son of a good friend, barely at driving age walked into our door at Indika. He excitedly popped open a beautiful wooden box and showed me some beautiful truffles. Of course, I bought some, and Ian went on to open a successful specialty import company in New York with big-name chefs clamoring for his curated goods. These days, celebrations have taken on a whole new meaning, and indulging in a small “black diamond” straight from the earth may be just the thing to do. There are so many ways to enjoy it, but the key is to guard the integrity of the truffle's heady fragrance. Grate one on buttered pasta, stir into rice pilaf or fold into an omelet. In this pilaf, the saffron and mace add a sweet note to the earthy truffle.