Peppered to Perfection
By Karl Klooster
Jack Czarnecki has cut a wide swath across Oregon’s culinary landscape since opening The Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton. Foodies began flocking to the beautifully restored Victorian residence on Ferry Street from the day it opened in 1997.
So when he decided to turn over operation of the mushroom-centric dining establishment to his son Chris a couple years ago, it wasn’t with the thought of retirement in mind.
From the time of his youth in Redding, Pa., Czarnecki undertook two challenging pursuits with a passion — preparing first-class cuisine and foraging for edible fungi.
The cuisine came from his parent’s restaurant, called Joe’s. A popular local eatery named for his father, it was reputed to be the first in the nation to offer wild mushrooms on its menu.
Jack’s grandfather, Joe Czarnecki Sr., was the family’s master mycologist. He passed along his love of scouring East Coast forests for the mouthwatering little morsels to his son, Joe Jr., and his grandson, Jack.
Thus, when Jack and Heidi Czarnecki went west with their sons, Christopher and Stephan, there was never any question that owning a restaurant and seeking out mushrooms to serve there would continue to be central elements of their lives.
In Oregon, the bonus, fungi-wise, turned out to be truffles. “I had heard about how good Oregon truffles were,” Jack said, “and I looked forward to foraging for them and adding them to my menu.”
As gourmet chefs and upscale diners all know well, wild mushrooms aren’t cheap. But, if chanterelles and shiitakes are the Cadillacs of the fungus family, truffles are the Rolls Royces.
When Jack handed the restaurant reins over to Chris, he had already put a fungus-faceted plan in place. Oregon truffles would form the foundation of another business endeavor — Oregon white truffle oil, or Willamette Valley truffle oil, to be geographically precise.
The idea was to capture the enticingly appetizing aromatics of white truffles in an exotic liquid that, unlike the morsels themselves, would have a lengthy shelf life.
If you really crave the stuff, it might not last long enough in any event. But simply having ready access to such a rare condiment and recipe enhancement is a delight for professional chefs and serious amateurs alike.
Truffles can’t be frozen or dried. Either indignity destroys the prized ethereal essence — the aroma.
After all, truffles aren’t shaved into paper-thin slices without good reason. The goal is to release and disseminate volatile organic compounds.
These pungent aromatics are locked inside the truffle’s molecular structure. They slowly seep out as a bowl of the fungi sits in front of you, wafting through the air to enthrall the senses.
Sound too sensual? A tad bit over the top for a mere fungal tuber? Once you try it, you won’t knock it.
Owing to the limitations nature imposes on the tantalizing tree-hugging tubers, Jack decided to launch another product — or, more accurately, product line — under the label The Czar’s Fine Foods.
His inspiration came from the family restaurant, where his dad had created a dipping and finishing sauce recipe in the late 1970s. Called Joe’s Javanese sauce, it became so popular, they started packaging and selling it to customers.
The name was eventually changed to Burgundy-Pepper Sauce, and it became a Joe’s staple. From that base, Jack made the serendipitous switch to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to create a Pinot & Pepper sauce.
His younger son, Stephan, joined him in the new venture, putting a dynastic duo at the head of the Czar’s team.
To complement Pinot & Pepper, they added Pinot & Chipotle, Pinot & Habañero and Pinot & Szechuan. Thus, they filled out the line with progressively hotter and spicier peppers.
Augmenting their cachet, Chris agreed to make use of both the truffle oil and the sauces in dishes featured on The Joel Palmer House menu.
A taste test of the four sauces side by side revealed distinctive differences married to family similarities. Happily to say, they cohabit in a most contented manner.
Taste preferences being subjective, it’s impossible to predict which sauce a given individual will prefer until he or she samples them. The habañero has the highest heat units, but its flavors show nicely and you won’t feel the need to run to the water fountain.
The popularity the pepper sauce enjoyed at Joe’s is readily apparent.
The chipotle delivers a sweet, spicy tanginess that keeps you returning for more. As for Szechuan, dumplings and duck showcase its savory Asian persuasion.
Although each one stands on its own, they share a common character on a gourmet level. Simply put, these are superbly saucy sauces that most people will find virtually irresistible.
For more information and to purchase the truffle oil and new sauces, visit www.oregontruffleoil.com.