Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

May your days be many and your truffles be, too.

My first, and most incredible, black truffle experience was a very long time ago in Paris, dining at Alain Senderens’ first restaurant (eponymous, I believe).

It was a poached whole black truffle, over an inch in circumference, giant by personal truffle standards, resting in a pool of ethereal lobster soup. The aromas alone were heavenly, not to mention the decadence of eating a whole “black diamond”.

Fast forward to another occasion in France, wandering into Boyer Les Crayeres in Reims, France, exhausted from driving, a little too late for regular midday service, and asking if they could just make a salad. “Mais, oui!”  A few minutes later, out came perfect bread, flutes of Champagne, and deliciously dressed greens, covered in a blanket of shaved black truffles. This is what I call a nice, light lunch.

White and Black Truffles

Truffles are a kind of mushroom which grows wild underground, harvested with the assistance of pigs or dogs specially trained to be attracted to their unique aroma. There are hundreds of types of truffles, the most prized of which are the black ones from Perigord, France, and the whites from Northern Italy.

Many other types exist, of varying quality, some marketed honestly (and costing much less) and some sold as the prime types by unscrupulous dealers. There have even been mini crime waves in the major truffle hunting locations, as some poachers resort to violence because of the size of the prize.

Chicken “Demi-Deuil”

White truffles are just as much a delicacy as the black, although used quite differently.   While the black truffle is usually cooked (whether studding sausages or foie gras, or in slices under the skin of a roast chicken, called “demi-deuil”, of “half mourning”), the most common usage of the white is raw.

White Truffles on Risotto

When shaved over a plate of hot risotto (or fettuccine, gnocchi, even roast chicken), the white truffles release an unmistakable and unparalleled aroma. Currently in season, white truffles can be found in some of the best Italian restaurants, shaved sparingly at tableside, often by the owner because they are so expensive, or by the gram weighed before and after they serve you. (Careful!)

This year, white truffles are retailing for $250 – $650/ounce.

White truffles usually come packed in Arborio rice, which will absorb flavors as they await being used. The most economical way to have a white truffle festival is to make your own pasta, splurge on a tiny white truffle and use a vegetable peeler to make paper thin slices, releasing the flavors and smells as you stand over the steaming plate.

Truffle Fries

Then there is truffle oil, sometimes made from the essence of real truffles, but more often from synthetic flavors, which is good reason to purchase from a top producer. A new “classic” is truffle oil on French fries, sometimes tossed with herbs. Now, those are empty calories worth having once in a while.

Chocolate truffles?  That’s for another day.

Defensive Dining

We’ve all been there: Mom’s favorite restaurant (“Voted #1 for Mexican in Zagat!” because there isn’t another Mexican restaurant within 100 miles) which doesn’t serve much other than over-processed factory food with lots of fat and no flavor. And, we go back every time because that’s where Mom wants to eat.

The corollary to this is the Dreaded Group Decision. This happens when everyone else wants to go for some form of food you simply don’t like, whether ethnic or just plain bad food. It gets exponentially worse in unavoidable business situations or someone’s birthday.

What to do?  Now is the time to think about what we all learned in Driver’s Ed, Defensive Driving. We need to practice Defensive Dining.

Unless they pose threats to life and limb (in which case Mom or the colleagues get overruled) these culinary minefields CAN be navigated successfully, sometimes even deliciously.

Here are myMEGusta’s Three Key Action Points for survival in unappetizing situations:

#1  Read the menu and look for the gems.  Look for local foods which might be actually prepared from scratch. Daily specials can also be the answer, but always ask the price before ordering. Check out the menu on the internet ahead of time. If it’s looking particularly dreary, call the restaurant and ask if they can modify dishes for you; for example, if they serve salad and have a grilled shrimp appetizer, ask if they’ll make you a shrimp Caesar. This way, you avoid the whole negotiation (“I’ll have to ask the chef”) while everyone else is ordering.

#2  Keep It Simple Stupid. KISS the complex dishes goodbye. They can’t destroy lettuce. Well, they can, but it’s much easier to mangle cooked vegetables. Order the chicken breast without any sauce. Shrimp cocktail is usually a winner (note “usually”).

When the problem is a serious matter of taste (some people just don’t like Mexican or Indian or Chinese flavors, and this is OK), look for the most simply prepared items. In a Chinese restaurant, for example, consider avoiding the usual “share” by telling everyone you’re on a diet and can only have steamed vegetables. If it’s Indian and spice is the problem, focus on the wonderful breads, maybe with a little raita (yogurt and cucumber).

#3  Take the Minimalist approach: The Poke and Push. This is especially potent when you are able to sneak in a snack before the meal so you are not starving. Order the absolute minimum (“I’m not really hungry. I’ll just have a salad. Dressing on the side.”), eat what you can stand to eat, and don’t worry even if your share of the bill is unfairly high. After all, you didn’t leave with unwanted calories and fat, not to mention potential ptomaine poisoning.

Another common challenge in many restaurants, even good ones, is portion size. Because food cost is such a small percentage of the real costs of running a restaurant (rent, staff, insurance, utilities), some operators load plate to build “perceived value”, which you, the customer, pay for. If you don’t want to overeat, waste food or carry out leftovers, just don’t over order. There is no shame in just having a salad and an appetizer (no main course), or sharing dishes.  Most good restaurants will divide portions in the kitchen (unless a dish requires elaborate, architectural presentation).

Recently, at the wonderful Capital Grille, a friend and I shared a (delicious) steak, and they even divided it before cooking so neither of us had to compromise on doneness. Now, THAT is good service!

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