Cauliflower with White Truffle Sauce

The only white truffles worth the expense are from the area around Alba in the Piedmont region of Italy. Since their season is from September (dicey) to the end of December (heavenly) and they must be eaten within a week of being dug only fresh and not frozen, it is excusable to go slightly mad each year as I do, and set off in mid-November for Alba.

I have eaten the white ones, such as the Tuber texense, from elsewhere. As far as I know, the first time they were served in a restaurant in America (with little success) was at Chez Panisse, after Linda Guenzel (who wrote the first Chez Panisse cookbook) saw some squirrels doing cartwheels on her mothers lawn in Texas and scooped a few truffles up herself and brought them back to us. But they, like the ones from Oregon, are really no good, smelling of pine sap and tasting the same. I have never tried the African dessert truffles (Terfezia), beloved by imperial Romans, but I think I will stick to Italy.

I first tasted white truffles at Harry’s Bar in Venice. I was there with Alice Waters on a little “honeymoon” of ours at the Gritti Palace. Even after two days at the Gritti, we had enough money to tiptoe into Harry’s. Of course, it was truffle season, so—after nearly bankrupting ourselves on those divine sandwiches at the bar, washed down with Bellinis—we had to try the famous tagliarini with white truffles. The waiter had the bowl of truffles at the table as the pasta arrived, and with a truffle slicer in hand, he proceeded to slice along at the normal rate. Unknown to me was the fact that I was supposed to say “stop” after about five passes of truffle over the pasta. Being an employee of the incomparable Harry, the waiter stopped, paused elegantly, and told me how much each slice cost. I looked at Alice and she at me. We shrugged, as in “you only live once (and can afford to eat here only once)” and waved him on for more slices.

Since then, I have eaten them on fried eggs, possibly the best way of all; I have had those eggs on pizza then covered with truffles; I have doused fresh white beans and cipollini onions with them; I have put eggs in ramekins and covered the eggs with cream and white truffles; I have made club sandwiches with them; I have put them on all sorts of vegetables like mashes of potato, cardoon, cauliflower, artichoke, white beans, and fennel; I have steamed lobster meat in a buttered puree of white truffles; and I have put them in fish soup.

I wanted to give a recipe for a puree of cardoons in which are sunk coddled eggs, brought to the table in a gratin dish to be covered with white truffles, but thought that might be a bit over the top, even for me. Another dream of a dish, which I had during the last white truffle season, was cornmeal crêpes stuffed with Jerusalem artichokes swamped in a bagna cauda, and covered with a blizzard of white truffles. This was at the wonderful Ristorante Centro in Priocca, near Asti in the Piedmont.

But I have decided on cauliflower, not only because I love it, but because anyone can find it and afford it, and because this recipe is wonderful even without the truffles. Of course the obvious thing is to load up the puree with butter and cream, so the challenge here was to leave them both out.

The secret with cauliflower is to cook it quickly in a lot of salted water and then to use it right away. Always break it up into small flowerets so that they cook quickly and at the same rate.

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Ingredients

  • 1 cauliflower, stemmed, cored, broken into 1-inch flowerets
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 5 salted anchovy fillets
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1 small pinch ground cardamom
  • ½ cup extra virgin light yellow olive oil
  • freshly ground white pepper
  • White truffles

Method

Put the cauliflower in 8 quarts of boiling salted water and cook for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute or more until the cauliflower is tender when pierced with a fork.

Drain the cauliflower well in a colander, pick out the garlic cloves and place them in a small mixing bowl and then immediately, while still hot, put the cauliflower through the coarse blade (1/16 inch) of a food mill, right into a warm serving bowl. Mix in a little salt (not too much—remember the anchovy) and keep warm.

Put the anchovy filets, lemon zest, and cardamom in the mixing bowl with the garlic and mash them all together with a fork. Then beat in the olive oil with the fork until the puree is just barely mixed.

Pour the sauce over the cauliflower, shave as many truffles over the dish as you can afford, and then grind the pepper over that.

Variations

Instead of the expensive truffles, try saucing the cauliflower with the asparagus sauce or the nasturtium sauce.

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