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April 2000 Issue
Flavourings -- The Final Frontier
by Rossana S. Tarantini
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Well sports fans, this is it, the final installment in the Flavourings Saga!! Hopefully you have found this series helpful. We strive to always keep you informed and entertained, and intrigued into trying out something you might not usually be open to.

So, without further ado . . . we bring on Truffles, Vanilla, and Vinegar. Enjoy this last part of our series and remember we are always open to suggestion.

Truffles

    Truffles are highly aromatic, a kind of fungus which grows about one foot underground. They cannot be cultivated and it is for this reason that they are so highly prized and expensive. They are detected by specially trained dogs and pigs which is another reason they are so expensive. They are THE most expensive food item available.

    Their flavour is slightly reminiscent of garlic, but truly so distinct as to be indescribable. Truffles can sometimes be found fresh in exclusive gourmet shops. White truffles are in season in November and December . . . usually black truffles may be found a few months later. Wrapped in tissue paper in a tightly sealed jar, they will keep refrigerated for several days. While canned truffles, truffle peelings and truffle essence are also available and equally expensive, they are really inferior in quality.

    There are a number of varieties of truffle but the best known are the Black Perigord Truffle and the Italian White truffle.

    Black or Perigord Truffle - tuber melanosporum
    This truffle is coal black and usually walnut sized. Found in the Perigord region of southern France it has a rich aroma and almost no flavour. Mostly used cooked in small quantities in things such as pates, terrines and stuffings, they are sometimes fried and served in a champagne sauce or baked en croute. Because of their jet black colour, they are often used in garnishing, especially with aspics. The French include truffle when wrapping game birds in bacon before roasting.

    Italian White Truffle
    This truffle is found throughout the Piemonte region of Italy. Normally larger than a black truffle, creamy coloured and looking almost like a potato, it also has a very strong fragrance but almost no flavour. Usually eaten raw, it can be shaven over risotto, plain pasta and egg dishes. It can also sometimes be added to the vegetable dip Bagna Cauda.

    Either of these truffles may also be included, thinly sliced in simple green salads dressed lightly in an olive oil and lemon juice dressing.

Vanilla -- vanilla planifolia

    Vanilla comes from the pod of a plant that is a member of the orchid family. While it is native to the rainforests of Central America, it is now being cultivated throughout the tropics. The pods are black or greenish-yellow and are harvested primarily while still unripe and without flavour. Processing them involves dipping them in boiling water, then placing them in airtight plastic containers to "sweat", thereby promoting the enzyme reaction which develops the flavour. The essential oil "vanillin" exudes and forms a frosting all around the pod as it dries. Dried pods can be found in most quality food stores. The black variety has the best flavour. Keep them in airtight containers for several months and reuse them often, as long as you wash and dry them well between uses. I keep mine in an airtight container filled with sugar. It imparts a nice flavour to the sugar which can then be used in sweet recipes or just to sweeten your coffee with a little something extra. Even taking it out and using it to flavour other dishes, I've found that I keep getting good results from the beans this way for about twelve to eighteen months.

    Vanilla extract, which is made from steeping the beans in alcohol is also available. I prefer using the beans themselves but pure extract is a good substitute. I find the West Indian varieties the most desirable and always try to cajole a friend who is vacationing in the islands to bring me home a bottle. Be careful when buying it though to buy the pure extract rather than the artificial one. The artificial extracts are made from cloves and are a poor substitute for the real thing.

    Use it to flavour anything confectionary, cakes, cookies, icings, buttercream frostings, puddings, creme caramel. In short, anything that is sweet.

Vinegar

    The word itself is derived from the French vin aigre or sour wine. Vinegars are produced when bacteria attack the alcohol in alcoholic liquids such as wine or ale and then oxidize into acetic acid.

    Most commonly, vinegars are made from red or white wines and beer (malt vinegar), although you will also find vinegars made from cider, sherry and juices. In the Orient, vinegars are most often made from fermented sake, rice wine. Strong distilled or white vinegar is made from distilling natural vinegar in a vacuum.

    Many things can be added to vinegars to enhance their flavour, including herbs -- we have discussed herbed vinegars in this column before -- garlic, chilies, flowers, and fruits such as raspberries, gooseberries and lemons.

    Used to a great extent in the preservation of foods, vinegars are also integral parts of many other dishes. Malt and distilled vinegars are great in pickles and relishes, as well as in mint sauce and horseradish. Flavoured vinegars are wonderful in vinaigrettes and sauces. Add a shallot flavoured vinegar to a Bearnaise Sauce, a chili flavoured vinegar to a seafood dish. Include a little wine vinegar in a marinade and it will help tenderize the meat. Add it to stews and sauces for a bit of a lift. Use cider vinegars in fruit pickles and relishes. Sherry and Champagne vinegars make unusual salad dressings.

    Dilute raspberry and other fruit vinegars into refreshing hot weather drinks. Proportions vary to taste and diluting liquids can be anything from water to tonic to club soda. I've used club soda with great success with raspberry vinegar and a fresh raspberry garnish.

Now, go forth and experiment. Armed with the Flavourings series, I expect all kinds of cooking to be happening out there in cyber land!! As per usual, I would love to hear what delicacies the columns are inspiring you to try that you might not otherwise have tried.

And also as usual, I am open to suggestions and recommendations for future columns. Send email to and let me know what you are inspired, intrigued or mystified by.

Happy Cooking!! Happy Easter!!

TTFN!!



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