While many people have a fear of flying, I would say an even higher percentage of food lovers have a fear of truffles: They're musky and strange, they're connected to pigs and dirt in some unpleasant way, in restaurants they're too expensive, and at home they're thought to require skills far beyond the average cook.
Okay, truffles are pricey -- but so are opera tickets, an afternoon with the kids at Yankee Stadium, or a boxed CD collection of Bruce Springsteen. And right now, as it's truffle season at a number of restaurants in town, they would appear to be an eminently available -- if not wonderfully affordable -- indulgence. For a quick fix, Trois Jean (154 East 79th Street; 988-4858) has an $82 four-course prix fixe truffle dinner and a more extensive à la carte truffle menu featuring many rustic dishes of Provence and Gascony. At Le Cirque (455 Madison Avenue, at 50th Street; 303-7788) and Restaurant Daniel (60 East 65th Street; 288-0033), scallops black tie are usually specials ($36 at Le Cirque and $78 for a three-course prix fixe at Daniel); nearby, Susan Weaver at Fifty Seven Fifty Seven in the Four Seasons Hotel (57 East 57th Street; 758-5757) has a wild-mushroom terrine appetizer that is studded with truffle bits ($16). Christian Delouvrier at Lespinasse (2 East 55th Street; 339-6719) is currently making a sublime poached poularde with a truffle-and-foie-gras stuffing and a robust portion of truffle slices tucked under the poularde's skin ($74 for two); Charlie Palmer often serves a roast version of the same dish without the foie gras ($65 for the three-course prix fixe) at Aureole (34 East 61st Street; 319-1660). Over at Jean Georges (1 Central Park West; 299-3900), Jean-Georges Vongerichten is roasting a guinea hen breast with truffles, tossing them into his leek tart, and stewing them in a Jerusalem-artichoke soup for his special seven-course truffle menu ($220).
But you should also know that if you can chop onions, you can prepare a truffle dish at home -- as long as the truffle itself is high-quality. There are certainly truffles out there worthy of worship: In the ancient Provençal village of Richerenche, a truffle mass is held every winter in the local church. Black-robed Masters of the Truffle (William Rehnquist would not look out of place) put in a special appearance and pass an alms basket around the congregation. Parishioners toss precious truffles inside to honor Saint Anthony, who loved pigs (their truffle-snuffling skills are renowned) and is therefore held to be the patron saint of truffle hunters.
A summer dry spell translated into a thin crop of the flavorful fungi this year; truffles are currently fetching up to $500 a pound. Aroma -- redolent of barnyard and bordello -- is not the sole criterion by which a truffle may be judged. The first-time buyer must also beware of cheap imitations: Close relatives of the real black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) may smell good when harvested but tend to retreat when cooked or combined with other ingredients.
Nor can superficial appearance be your guide: Laurent Manrique, the talented New York-based Gascon chef, demonstrates this by slicing into a good truffle and a look-alike called a musqué. The white veins are sharper and more defined inside true black truffles. (But in truth, a layperson would have a hard time telling the minute differences between the two.)
That's why, if you're planning to try this at home, it would behoove you to start with a truffle that hails from a trusted source. Plantin America, of Weehawken (201-867-4590; www.plantin.com) is a reliable importer of black truffles, which usually can be bought fresh through March. The current price is approximately $500 the pound, with a minimum order of four ounces ($130). Too rich for your blood? Citarella (1313 Third Avenue, at 75th Street, and 2135 Broadway, at 75th Street; 874-0383 for both stores) currently sells fresh black truffles by the ounce -- $35.99 per. However, the best generally weigh no less than an ounce and a half. Truffles keep for a few days in the fridge if you place them in uncooked rice or wrap them in paper towels and store them in a Ziploc bag. But the longer they sit around, the less intense the flavor and the greater chance there is that they will develop mold (which can be cut out before preparation).
How, then, to treat a truffle? We asked Hervé Poron, France's leading exporter of truffles, and his wife, Margareth, to recommend a couple of simple, authentic Provençal recipes. Folks were eating these two dishes -- a lettuce-shallot salad and a down-home purée of celery root with cream -- back when truffles were still regarded as a lowly peasant staple.
Green-Lentil Salad With Black Truffles
1 pound green lentils, Dupuy brand preferred (available at most grocers)
2 ounces black truffles, in 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon sea salt (sel de Guerande preferred)
2 tablespoons Xeres vinegar (or any good balsamic vinegar)
1/2 shallot, finely diced
3 cups loosely packed mâche
2 tablespoons chervil, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Boil the lentils in water following the directions on the box. While lentils are cooking, place truffles in a salad bowl, adding 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add salt. In a separate bowl, combine vinegar with shallots and remaining olive oil; pour over truffles. Add mâche and chervil; lightly toss. Season to taste with pepper.
Drain cooked lentils, and while they are still warm, lightly toss with the salad. Serve immediately.
Celery-Root Purée With Black Truffles
Serves four to six.
1 celery root (celeriac)
3 tablespoons crème fraîche or heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 ounces black truffles, in 1/4-inch-thick slices
Cut the celery root into large chunks and boil until fork-soft. Drain, purée in a food processor, and pulse in the crème fraîche gradually. Empty into a medium-size bowl. Season with salt and pepper; fold in truffles and serve.
Aromatherapy: Tournedos Rossini at Trois Jean topped with sautéed foie gras, black truffles, and perigourdine sauce ($49).
They may look like potatoes, but this fragrant bag of truffles is worth its weight in real Yukon gold.