Caviar, Truffles and Foie Gras

by The Gilded Fork

by Katherine Alford

Few foodstuffs can invoke the idea of luxury quite like caviar, truffles, and foie gras.

And for most home cooks, few are as intimidating.

According to chef and food writer Katherine Alford, however, this need not be the case.  In Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras: Recipes for Divine Indulgence, Alford aims to demystify this extravagant trinity and demonstrate the ease with which each can be prepared at home.

The first section of the book focuses on the three featured delicacies in turn; Alford explores the historical and cultural significance of each, and provides detailed explanations to help the kitchen connoisseur navigate the rarefied world of such expensive indulgences.  She defines the different types of caviar, truffle, and foie gras products available, and outlines what to look for when shopping for them.  Considering the expense of such products – particularly in their purest, most natural forms – and lack of experience most of us have in acquiring them, her advice is invaluable.

Given the scarcity of caviar and truffles, it is not surprising to read of a darker side to their trade.  Alford offers a fascinating glimpse into the cut-throat, gun-toting world of caviar smuggling, and the highly competitive and clandestine rituals behind truffle hunting.  It makes for enjoyable reading, and goes a long way towards explaining the staggeringly high costs of the best of these delicacies.

The subsequent sections of the book feature recipes for using the three ingredients, and are arranged by courses:  Amuse-Gueules, First Courses, Main Courses, and Side Dishes.  “Because of their distinctive qualities and tastes,” Alford writes, “they don’t need overwrought recipes to make them shine.”  Indeed, her recipes highlight the seductive qualities inherent in these ingredients.  Caviar, which delights most when served plain, is used judiciously to add its particular charms to simple dishes.  Truffles are frequently used to imbue an uncomplicated dish with their wild, earthy richness.  And foie gras is often served with something sweet, mirroring the heavenly marriage of its traditional pairing with Sauternes (for a wonderful example, see the March 2005 recipe for Terrine of Foie Gras with Mulled Plums and Gingered Pears).

Many of the recipes – such as White-Truffled Grissini, Champagne-Poached Oysters with Sevruga, and Figs Stuffed with Foie Gras Mousse – are simple enough and certainly doable at home.  I tried perhaps the simplest of these:  American Caviar Dip, which calls for mixing colorful and relatively inexpensive lumpfish roe with cream cheese, sour cream, scallions and freshly ground pepper.  The smooth and creamy cheese base contrasted nicely with the delicate crunch of those tiny eggs, each mouthful providing a pleasant contrast of textures.  The overall flavor, however, was too subtle for my palate, as I am fond of roe and would have preferred to taste the eggs more distinctly.  That said, this dip would make a wonderful and non-threatening introduction to fish eggs for the uninitiated.

Others recipe in the book are decidedly more complex and sophisticated; one has to be an experienced and confident cook with relatively deep pockets to try Squab with Black Truffle and Foie Gras, or Steamed Lobster with Truffled Beurre Fondue. Despite Alford’s clear and straightforward explanations, this competent amateur – who is quite confident in the kitchen and yet, on occasion, still burns her toast – remains a little intimidated by the idea of dropping a substantial sum on a lobe of foie gras.

What shines most clearly throughout the book is Alford’s respect for these remarkable foodstuffs:  respect for their scarceness, for the animals and people who produce them, for Nature itself in creating such delicacies.  And this respect is infectious.  Even if one never cooks with caviar, truffles, or foie gras at home, simply reading about them and noting the reverence with which they are treated will heighten one’s enjoyment of these truly divine indulgences.

With its elegant silver cover, gracefully-scripted, watermarked pages, and stunning photographs, the book is itself a delight.  Although by no means a “must have” on anyone’s bookshelf, Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras is an excellent resource for better understanding and appreciating these most luxurious of foods.

Review by Tania Denesiuk

Tania Denesiuk writes, cooks and eats in Toronto, Canada.  Her culinary adventures can be found at www.candiedquince.ca.

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