Truffle – Definition

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It’s hard to believe that one of the rarest and most expensive foods in the world is located by pigs and dogs. This exceptional fungus grows 3 to 12 inches underground near the roots of trees (usually oak but also chestnut, hazel and beech), never beyond the range of the branches. The difficult-to-find truffle is routed out by animals that have been specially trained for several years. Pigs have keener noses, but dogs are less inclined to gobble up the prize. Once the truffle is found, the farmer (trufficulteur) scrapes back the earth, being careful not to touch the truffle with his hands (which will cause the fungus to rot.) If the truffle isn’t ripe, it’s carefully reburied for future harvesting. This methodically slow and labor-intensive harvesting method is what makes truffles so extremely expensive. Truffles have been prized by gourmets for centuries and were credited by the ancient Greeks and Romans with both therapeutic and aphrodisiac powers. A truffle has a rather unappealing appearance-round and irregularly shaped with a thick, rough, wrinkled skin that varies in color from almost black to off-white.

Of the almost 70 known varieties, the most desirable is the BLACK TRUFFLE, also known as black diamond. Its extremely PUNGENT flesh is black with white striations. The next most popular the the WHITE TRUFFLE. Fresh imported truffles are available from late fall to midwinter in specialty markets. Choose firm, well-shaped truffles with no sign of blemishes. Truffles should be used as soon as possible after purchase but can be stored up to 3 days in the refrigerator. To take full advantage for their perfumy fragrance, bury them in a container of rice or whole eggs and cover tightly before refrigeration. The scent will permeate whatever truffles are stored with, giving the cook a flavor bonus. Brush any surface dust off the truffle and peel the dark species. White truffles need not be peeled. Canned truffles, truffle paste in a tube and, to a limited extent, frozen truffles are also found in specialty stores. Dark truffles are generally used to flavor foods such as OMELETS, POLENTAS, RISOTTOS and sauces, like the famous PERIGUEUX. The more mildly flavored white truffles are usually served raw by grating them over foods such as pasta or cheese dishes. They’re also added at the last minute to cooked dishes. A special implement called a truffle slicer can be used to shave off paper-thin slivers and slices of truffle. Dishes flavored or garnished with truffles are often referred to as à la périgourdine.

(There is a great essay on truffles in a book I love, “The Man who ate Everything” by Jeffrey Steingarten. I would highly recommend getting it. Here’s a short review if you want to learn more.)

Polenta – Definition

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[poh-LEHN-tah] A staple of northern Italy, polenta is a MUSH made from cornmeal. It can be eaten hot with a little butter or cooled until firm, cut into squares and fried. Polenta is sometimes mixed with cheese such as Parmesan or Gorgonzola. It can be served as a first course or side dish and makes hearty breakfast fare.

Jambalaya – Definition

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[juhm-buh-LI-yah; jam-buh-LI-yah] One of CREOLE cookery’s hallmarks, jambalaya is a versatile dish that combines cooked rice with a variety of ingredients including tomatoes, onion, green peppers and almost any kind of meat, poultry or shellfish. The dish varies widely from cook to cook. It’s thought that the name derives from the French jambon, meaning “ham,” the main ingredient in many of the first jambalayas.

Creole Cooking-Definition

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[KREE-ohl] In the 18th century, the Spaniards governing New Orleans named all residents of European heritage Criollo. The name, which later became Creole, soon began to imply one of refined cultural background with an appreciation for an elegant lifestyle. Today, creole cookery reflects the full-flavored combination of the best of French, Spanish and African cuisines. Its style, with an emphasis on butter and cream, is more sophisticated than Cajun cooking (Which uses prodigious amounts of pork fat.) Another difference between the two cuisines is that Creole uses more tomatoes and the Cajuns more spices. Both cuisines rely on the culinary “holy trinity” of chopped green peppers, onions and celery, and make generous use if FILE POWDER. Probably the most famous dish of Creole heritage is GUMBO.

Gumbo – Definition

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[GUHM-boh] The CREOLE specialty is a mainstay of New Orleans cuisine. It’s a thick, stew-like dish that can have any of many ingredients, including vegetables such as OKRA, tomatoes and onions, and one or several meats or shellfish such as chicken, sausage, ham, shrimp, crab or oysters. The one thing all good gumbos begin with is a dark ROUX, which adds an unmistakable, incomparably rich flavor. Okra serves to thicken the mixture, as does FILE POWDER, which must be stirred in just before serving after the pot’s off the fire. The famous gumbo z’herbes (with herbs) was once traditionally served on Good Friday and contains at least seven greens (for good luck) such as spinach, mustard greens, collard greens and so on. The name gumbo is a derivation of the African word for “Okra.”

Filé powder – Definition

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[FEE-lay; fih-LAY] Choctaw Indians from the Louisiana bayou country are said to have been the first users of this seasoning made from the ground, dried leaves of the sassafras tree. It’s since become an integral part of CREOLE COOKING and is used the thicken and flavor GUMBO and other Creole dishes. Filé has a woodsy flavor reminiscent of root beer. It must be stirred into a dish after it’s removed from the heat because undue cooking make Filé tough and stringy. Filé powder is available in the spice or gourmet section of most large supermarkets. As with all spices, it should be stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 months.

Emulsion – Definition

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A mixture of one liquid with another with which it cannot normally combine smoothly-oil and water being the classic example. Emulsifying is done by slowly (sometimes drop-by-drop) adding one ingredient to another while at the same time mixing rapidly. this disperses and suspends minute droplets of one liquid throughout the other. Emulsified mixtures are usually thick and satiny in texture. Mayonnaise (an uncooked combination of oil, egg yolks and vinegar or lemon juice) and hollandaise (a cooked mixture of butter, egg yolks and vinegar or lemon juice) are two of the the best known emulsions.

(Side note: This is one of my favorite things to do. It is so freaking gratifying!)
Random fact: As a general rule, 3/4 of a cup of oil can be emulsified into one large egg. If you’re new at this, I’d stick with 1/2 cup, just to be on the safe side.

Savory – Definition

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A term describing food that is not sweet but rather piquant and full flavored.

Bisque – Definition

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A thick rich soup usually consisting of pureed seafood (sometimes fowl or vegetables) and cream.

(Side note, the awful part time job I have right now sells a lobster bisque. It is some frozen nastiness that you add milk to. It’s one of the most popular soups, and I literally gag every time I smell it. What is wrong with people?!)

Here’s a recipe from Southern Living that looks great, although I haven’t tried it:

Sultana – Definition

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[suhl-TAN-uh] Origination in Smyrna, Turkey, this small, pale golden-green grape was once used to make wine. today, however, it’s cultivated primarily for raisins. Its offspring in the United States is known as the Thompson seedless grape.