Ordering Truffles Out of Season
"Don't order anything with truffles," my friend said during a recent dinner at an upscale restaurant in town. "It's not truffle season anymore. It won't be worth it."
I had, of course, heard the phrase "truffle season" before, particularly in reference to the expensive Alba white truffles, which achieve peak ripeness in late fall and are rarely served outside of that season. But when ordering truffles at a fancy restaurant, I rarely think about them in the same way that I might asparagus or green beans or berries. Truffles look like rocks and smell like an alluring mixture of mushrooms and earth. They're a fungus. How can they not be in season?
It seems that at least one variety of traditional European truffles (of which there are four) is "in season" every month of the year except March and April. So if you're seeing truffles on menus right now, chances are they're the last crop of the year, or they're frozen or preserved in oil.
White truffles, the cream of the crop if you will, are in season primarily in October and November. Like all truffles, they're harvested with the aid of truffle pigs or dogs that are trained to sniff out the pungent odor of the fungi and dig them up. Once the truffles are unearthed, the quality of the flavor and the aroma begin to decrease exponentially. Most truffles have a five- to seven-day shelf life, which can be increased slightly by refrigerating them.
Truffles should be stored only after they've been scrubbed with a brush under running water to remove excess dirt. Delectations, a blog devoted to truffles, notes that they can be frozen for as long as six months without losing much of their aroma, though they may soften a bit. Restaurants need to be sure that the truffles are stored in an absolutely airtight container, as any moisture will cause them to degrade.
Many restaurants store truffles in rice for several days until they're used up. Rice mimics the natural habitat (a.k.a. dirt) to which truffles are accustomed and helps keep them from rotting prematurely.
Since most of the truffles we consume in fancy restaurants in the United States come from Europe, by the time they reach us here, they have about three to five good days left.According to truffle dealer John Magazino, the weight of a truffle drops 10 percent per day after they're dug up, primarily due to water loss. Because truffles are sold by weight, dealers want to get them to restaurants as quickly as possible to make the maximum profit.
An overripe truffle will begin to get soft and lose the aroma that contributes so much to its funky taste. If you're served a dish with overripe truffle at a restaurant, you may not know unless you can visibly inspect the truffle or unless the flavor is very mild. Most places will grate fresh truffles directly onto food, though, and it will be clear whether they're ripe during the grating process.
Unripe truffles will not yet have achieved the texture or the fragrance that people generally associate with truffles. Animals specifically trained to dig up ripe truffles will generally ignore unripe ones, and people who harvest unripe ones are doing themselves no good, because once a truffle is removed from its natural habitat, so to speak, it loses its food source and ceases to develop.
After white truffle season ends around November, black truffles pick up the slack. They're in season from November through late February or early March. You might be hard pressed to find truly fresh truffles in American restaurants in March and April, but summer truffles are ripe for harvest from May through August, as the name suggests. Burgundy truffles, which are actually the same species as summer truffles and vary only based on region, pick up in September and are generally available through December.
Of course, white truffles and black truffles are the most sought-after and most commonly used. If you really want to reap the benefits of Mother Nature's tasty treat (and get your money's worth), wait until the season picks up again this October.
A Happy Accident
Saint Arnold creates a great new summer beer.
If you're a local beer lover, there's no doubt you're familiar with Saint Arnold, the granddaddy of Houston's craft beer scene, and you might have already heard a bit of the story behind the creation of their newest beer, Boiler Room. A boiler-room mistake (hence the name) meant a batch of Lawnmower was made with half the proper amount of malt, and brewer Stephen Rawlings decided to experiment with it rather than dump it out. He added a Belgian beer with lots of bacteria, let it sour, then boiled and fermented it.
This fortunate combination of accident and open-minded experimentation led to the creation of Boiler Room, Saint Arnold's first new year-round release since 2012's Endeavor double IPA. The beer was released to bars on March 19, and 22 oz. bombers went on sale in stores yesterday.
So a good story is nice, but what's the actual beer like? We went to the brewery this past week and spoke to Lennie Ambrose, marketing and events director for Saint Arnold, while sipping on some Boiler Room.
The first thing Ambrose wanted to clarify was the story behind the making of the beer. Although it's true that it was first conceived when half of the recipe's malt was left on the floor during the making of a wort, that batch was for Fancy Lawnmower, Saint Arnold's classic Kölsch. The brewmasters did not use it for release, but instead crafted an entirely new recipe for the version of Boiler Room on taps and in stores, using a grain bill of 60 percent wheat, along with some lactobacillus bacteria for souring, to create a true Berliner Weisse.
The result is a sour, lemony beer that is low on ABV (3.7 percent) but high on refreshment. The sourness never comes close to being overpowering, and it quickly gives way to the crisp lemon flavor (with a hint of apples in the body). The beer finishes light and easily, not leaving a strong mouthfeel behind, unlike most sours.
Berliner Weisse isn't a particularly popular style, so we don't have much to compare the Boiler Room to, but as luck would have it, I was able to sample some Charlie Foxtrot from Richmond's Texian Brewing later that day. The two don't really compare: The Texian is an Imperial Berliner Weisse, making it a much stronger beer (8% ABV), which allows for more complex flavors, but at the same time makes it a beer less suitable for light enjoyment. I quite liked it, for the record.
I don't know about you, but during the Houston summertime, I like a low-ABV, crisp and refreshing beer best served cold, preferably while sitting in a kiddie pool in my backyard. The Boiler Room is a beer that deservedly will be added to my list, among such classics as Abita Strawberry Ale, Shiner Ruby Redbird, and Saint Arnold's own Summer Pils. This isn't to say it can't be enjoyed at other times of year (it will be available year-round). It reminds me of nothing so much as a shandy, and for my money, that's decidedly a good thing.
Last note for beer lovers: Ambrose clued me in on what the next few releases in the Bishops Barrel series will be. Bishops Barrel 7 will see another release of the imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels, as Bishops Barrel 1 and 3 were. It will be followed by their Old Ale aged in red wine casks, and Bishops Barrel 9 will use the Divine Reserve 5, a strong Russian imperial stout, as its base beer. Something else for us to look forward to.
On the Menu
No Red Sauce, Please
Where to find a proper white pizza in Houston.
It took a recent trip home to New Jersey to remind me how much I love white pizza. And not the kind that is just mozzarella cheese without tomatoes, or even worse, the kind made with alfredo sauce. I'm talking about real New-York-style white pizza made with the pièce de résistance: creamy, milky ricotta cheese.
After a few cream sauce-topped pies, I learned rather quickly that a true white pizza is harder to find in Houston than I'd hoped. But there are still plenty of places that make it.
Here's where to find a proper (read: ricotta-topped) white slice:
Where: Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria
What: White Pie w/ Garlic
It should be no surprise that Brooklyn-born Grimaldi's makes a fantastic New York-style white pie. Their coal-fired, thin-crust pies remain crisp and light despite being loaded with heaps of warm and gooey ricotta, handmade mozzarella cheese, and sweet and buttery fresh garlic.
Where: Two Guys Pizzeria
What: The Bianco
As first reported by contributor John Kiely, you'll find plenty of Yankees hats and Knicks gear at the Medical Center's Two Guys Pizzeria. According to owner Oscar Monte, "It's the aroma. Customers come in and tell me it smells just like their favorite pizza place back home."
The Bianco is a bit more loaded than your regular white pie, but with fresh spinach; sun-dried tomatoes; garlic; and the holy trinity of romano, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, we don't mind.
Where: Fuzzy's Pizza & Cafe
What: The Margarita
With four crusts to choose from and homemade ingredients, Fuzzy's Pizza & Café has been a hit since opening its original location in 1986. For an authentic white pizza experience, get the extra-thin New-York style crust and the Margarita pie, a white pizza topped with mozzarella, ricotta, provolone, parmesan, tomatoes, and fresh basil.
Where: Coppa/Coppa Osteria
What: The Bianca
It's not just ricotta and mozzarella on the 900-degree oven-fired white pizza at the sibling Coppa restaurants. The cheeses are on it, of course, but so are mounds of fontina, parmesan, and scamorza, a silky-smooth Italian cow's milk cheese. Green olives and oregano make this blistering pie one of the best white pizzas in the city.
Where: Coal Vine's Pizza & Wine Bar
What: White Pie
Dallas import Coal Vine's serves up hand-tossed coal-fired pies with thin and crisp New-York-style crust. Try the white pie, made in true "white pizza style" with mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, plus a hint of oregano; or the white special, which adds sliced tomatoes. Having a look at their wine list won't hurt, either.
Off the Menu Specials
Where: Brother's Pizzeria
What: Pizza Bianca (White Pizza)
Loyal fans of this no-frills pizzeria recently jumped to the message boards to vote Brother's Pizza in for one of the 5 Most Underrated Restaurants in Houston. Visit one of three locations to enjoy classically delicious, thicker-crust pies like the off-the-menu white pizza, made with mountains of gooey mozzarella and milky ricotta.
What: Le Pizze Bianche w/ Ricotta
International chain Piola will happily adjust any of their authentic Italian pies to your liking. I love ordering the Tours — a sauceless pizza made with mozzarella, spinach, mushroom and bacon — and adding ricotta. Dollops of the creamy, silky cheese practically melt in your mouth, making each bite pure pizza bliss.
Openings & Closings
Midtown gets a food truck park.
In not-so-shocking news, another Washington Avenue bar bites the dust. The Houston Chronicle reports that Blue Moose Lodge at 5306 Washington shut its doors on Thursday, March 20. The sports bar posted the closing announcement on Facebook; Blue Moose Lodge had been in business for three and a half years.
But in good news, guess what, Houston? We're getting another food truck park, and it's in Midtown! Midtown Mobile Cuisine will hold its grand opening on Friday, April 4, after a soft opening on Thursday, April 3. The new food truck park is located at 4002 Almeda, and as reported by CultureMap's Eric Sandler, it will have on-site electrical power, unlike other food truck parks such as My Food Park HTX and Houston Food Park. What does this mean? It means you get to stuff your face with your favorite food-truck offerings late at night and get to listen to live music, rather than those annoying diesel generators. Pretty sweet, right?
Another Midtown eatery is on its way to opening. Gyu-Kaku at 510 West Gray opened on March 31, according to Eater Houston. Customers will be able to cook their own seafood and meat on charcoal grills built into each seating area at the Japanese barbecue restaurant.
Punk's Simple Southern Food finally opened on March 24. Grant Cooper, Charles Clark and chef Brandi Key run this new Clark Cooper Concept. Now there are two Clark Cooper Concept restaurants in Rice Village; Punk's opened next door to Coppa Osteria. Eater Houston reports that Punk's will have a Southern vibe and atmosphere, from the decorations to the menu to the waitstaff. The restaurant will have a walk-up to-go window, similar to the one at Coppa Osteria, but Punk's will serve items like fried chicken and biscuits instead of Italian offerings like pizza.
You might have noticed the signage of the old CHA Champagne & Wine Bar has been replaced with a sign for an Irish pub. Eater reports that the 810 Waugh location has been transformed into Pimlico Irish Pub, where you can enjoy a pint of Guinness with your friends while listening to traditional Irish music from live bands throughout the week.
Texas Blizzard Shave Ice's food truck hit the roads on April 1. The snow cone and shave ice food truck opened at 2706 White Oak. According to a press release, Texas Blizzard decided to add another truck because of high demands last season. And with a new truck comes a new menu. This truck offers blizzard bowls, which are bowls with layers of shave ice and fresh fruit, then a topping of ice cream, as well as milkshakes and soft-serve ice cream. If you want to know where the truck will be throughout the week, check out its website at www.texasblizzard.com.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.