What's Fabulous: Bottarga
The salty, dried roe of tuna or grey mullet.
As I write this it's winter, a time of year when it's easy to get food fatigue because our palates can get bored with so many slow cooked and simmered foods. I've been craving something unexpected, foods with more crunch to their texture and a sparkle to their taste.
So last week I made a salad that was primarily radicchio. I dressed big shreds of this bitter, leafy chicory with a dressing made with garlic and anchovies, mimicking a classic Roman salad that's called puntarella in salsa. I finely minced a clove of garlic, then mashed it into a paste with the side of my chef's knife. To this I added 2 finely-minced anchovy fillets (I love the Recca brand, packed in oil; I'll open a whole can, use two pieces, then refrigerate the rest in their own oil in a plastic container -- the little fillets are already preserved so they'll keep for weeks and I'll gradually use them up by adding to a tomato sauce, salad dressing, or the gravy of slow-cooked pot roast). A pinch of salt, some black pepper, one tablespoon of red wine vinegar and three tablespoons of olive oil. Whisk with a fork and taste, adding more salt or vinegar to make the dressing as bright as you like. I tossed this on a big bowl of torn-up radicchio to which I've added about a cup of finely sliced red onion. This is a winter salad with a big personality.
I also made pasta with grated bottarga.
Buying and Cooking With Bottarga
Bottarga. There's a good chance you've never heard of it. A search of the huge recipe database at Epicurious.com produces zero mentions of this wonderful ingredient. If it weren't for Mario Batali and the visibility he's given it in his recent cookbooks and appearances on Food TV, maybe none of us would know it, unless we've spent some time eating in Sardinia or perhaps Greece.
So what is bottarga?
Bottarga is fish roe (eggs), from either grey mullet or tuna, that's been pressed into a hard cake. It's thought that the name comes from the Arabic term for raw fish eggs, or "bot-ah-rik." Decidedly Mediterranean, bottarga is found in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and Arabic cuisine. Some eat it in slices as an hors d'oeuvre, in the way you might also have a thin slice of salami. But more often we see it used grated into pasta or on eggs, vegetables or over a salad of bitter greens.
Bottarga has a distinctive flavor. It is intense, salty, a little briny, a little bitter, and very similar to caviar (which makes sense since like caviar, bottarga is fish roe). When grated onto long-stranded pasta like spaghetti, the tender bits of pressed roe cling to the pasta and add tiny explosions of salty, fishy taste.
Authentic bottarga is an intact sac of fish roe that has been salted and then dried in the sun (which kills any bacteria) for one to two months. The cured sac is then dipped in beeswax or sealed in airtight plastic, making it safe to ship and giving it a long shelf-life.
What do I do with it?
Most bottarga pasta recipes are very simple: dry spaghetti is cooked to al dente and then tossed with olive oil in which some garlic and perhaps hot pepper flakes have been cooked to golden brown. Sometimes quickly cooked cherry tomatoes (fresh or canned) or a few spoonfuls of a simple tomato sauce are added. When the strands of spaghetti are coated, a piece of bottarga is held over the hot pasta and grated or sliced, as you would with a piece of Parmesan. We've added a link to our recipe which includes San Marzano tomatoes.
But add no cheese to this! The pleasure is to enjoy the combination of sea salty flavor with a little heat. Any cheese would only overwhelm bottarga's refined personality.
A single piece of bottarga, when grated, is usually enough for four servings so if there's any left over, wrap it well and refrigerate or freeze it and it will keep for months. You can also grate bottarga over scrambled eggs, add it to risotto, slow-cooked cannellini beans, or sprinkled over a Caesar salad.
Where To Buy Bottarga
This isn't a commonplace ingredient so where can we buy it?
The bottarga sources I've found in New York are at The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market and BuonItalia, the Italian grocer also located in Chelsea Market. Formaggio Essex in the Essex Street Market on Manhattan's Lower East Side may be a source, likewise Zabar's. And you can buy it online at Gustiamo.com, a splendid New York-based online Italian merchant. Other grocers tell me they don't sell bottarga only because there's not enough of a demand. If more of us ask for it, it will be easier to find and buy.
You can also find other sources online but shop around for prices; Amazon currently has it for $100 and frankly I think this is nuts.
Occasionally you might find a small jar of powdered bottarga for sale in a food store. The pre-grating significantly reduces the flavor so try to avoid this and instead continue to search for it in a full piece to grate yourself.
Bottarga can be expensive. So you may be thinking, why is The City Cook advocating a luxury ingredient? First, a little comparison shopping will show you there's a huge range in what merchants charge for bottarga so there's a lesson here about being a shrewd food shopper. Second, I want you to consider the full cost of a dish and of a meal, not just one ingredient; in this case $12 worth of bottarga (half of a recent $24 piece) grated over a $2.50 1-pound box of spaghetti (plus a few cents more for a garlic clove, pinch of red pepper flakes, and a glug of olive oil) makes a special dish for 4 happy persons. Add a salad and a few pieces of roast chicken and you'll have a feast with a reasonable per person cost. Third, we don't eat like this every day but you should know how a single special ingredient can transform an ordinary recipe or meal into something celebratory.
Finally, it's a year-round treat. In the winter, when most days are gray and cold, there's only so much appetite for pea soup and pot roast. One taste from this bowl of golden-flecked strands of pasta may make you think of a salt-scented dock at the beach, and that just may be worth $12.