For the last two years we’ve posted spring recipes for shad roe, a seasonal reward for surviving winter. We’re still rolling with roe this year, but of a dramatically different kind: Spaghetti with Bottarga, Preserved Lemon and Chilies. Bottarga is the salted dried roe of gray mullet or bluefin tuna. Grated over pasta or served in very thin slices, it may be even more of an umami bomb than garum. Until recently only Americans fortunate enough to travel to Sicily, Sardinia or parts of Calabria were likely to encounter bottarga. But about ten years ago lumps of bottarga began showing up in a few American chefs’ hands. Its rich, funky flavor provokes either love or hate, but at twelve to fifteen dollars an ounce, it’s pricey enough to keep all but the curious or committed from seeking it out and trying it. Two ounces is more than enough for pasta for 4. Be forewarned: curious tasters have a way of morphing into bottarga zealots after their initial experience. Think guanciale of the sea. Armed with a small amount of bottarga and prep so rudimentary it makes bolognese look like a kidney transplant, you can make a pasta dish fit for the gods.
Unlike other players with relatively short histories in American kitchens (e.g. big asparagus) bottarga has a documented presence dating back to the Middle Ages, and has probably been made for a thousand years before that. Bottarga production is now considered an artisanal trade in Italy, which entitles certain government protections. Although it’s primarily associated with a few regions of southern Italy, notably the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, it also exists in Greece. Sicilians fashion bottarga from the roe sacs of tuna, preserving them in beeswax. In Sardinia, bottarga comes from gray mullet, and is then sealed in plastic. Either way the stuff lasts forever. We made this dish, using part of a package I bought over a year ago (we froze the remainder, not that the package has been opened). Whether in wax or plastic, bottarga is an amber-mahogany colored material in the form of a hard plaque that is recognizably a roe sac. I’m told that tuna bottarga is softer than mullet, but I haven’t had the chance to try tuna yet, so I can’t definitely say. After removing the wax or plastic packaging, there remains the easy task of peeling away the the thin skin that had once been the sac itself. This is more an esthetic choice than anything else. Peeled bottarga has a waxy texture and grates easily with a microplane or may be shaved into thin slices with a sharp knife or mandoline. It has a tendency to melt on contact with warm pasta.
Italian tuna and gray mullet bottarga are now available online. Amazon.com offers a good half-dozen options, along with reviews of various purveyors, which can be quite helpful. A Google search will bring up smaller online vendors as well. The only one I can endorse from personal experience is the Anna Maria Fish Company, where founder and owner Seth Cripes makes his own bottarga from local gray mullet in Florida. According to a New York Times article most of the local Florida mullet roe is frozen in bulk and shipped to Italy where it’s used… to make bottarga. But why go to Italy when you can enjoy umami gold was right here, in your own back yard? Enjoy. Ken
Spaghetti with Bottarga, Preserved Lemon and Chilies
- Kosher salt
- 2½ ounces bottarga
- ½ preserved lemon
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1-2 hot peppers, thinly sliced, seeds removed, or ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 lb. dried spaghetti
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- Put a large pot of salted water on the stove over high heat. The water should be as salty as the sea.
- Remove the thin papery outer membrane covering the bottarga. Using a very sharp knife, cut 16 super thin slices of bottarga and set aside on a plate and cover with plastic wrap. Grate the rest on a fine microplane into a bowl.
- Remove the pulp from the lemon, discard any seeds and then chop the pulp finely. Slice the skin into thin strips, then chop crosswise into tiny dice (see picture sequence). Set everything aside until it’s time to toss with the pasta.
- In a large sauté pan, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil with the garlic and peppers over medium-low heat until the garlic is tender, about 4 minutes. Pour the garlic, peppers and oil into a bowl.
- Increase the heat to medium, add the remaining oil to the pan and when hot, add the breadcrumbs. Cook, tossing constantly, until the crumbs are toasted and golden, a minute or so. Transfer the crumbs to a plate.
- When the water is boiling, add the spaghetti and cook, stirring constantly, until the water returns to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 8 minutes, depending on the pasta.
- While the spaghetti is cooking, return the garlic, pepper and oil to the sauté pan. Add the grated bottarga and up to 1 cup of pasta water. Swirl it all around until you have a smooth sauce.
- Scoop the cooked pasta out of the pot and dump into the pan with the bottarga. Toss well. Add the preserved lemon pulp, the diced lemon skin, the parsley and stir again. Add more pasta water if the mixture is too dry.
- Serve immediately in warm bowls, topping with the breadcrumbs and a few slices of bottarga.
This should be called Spaghetti with Bottarga, but that would scare people. Bo-what?
We added a few of the other more familiar ingredients to the title in hopes that people would take a chance on the unknown. Also, as long we’re talking about ingredients, you might have noticed that I used the preserved lemon pulp in this recipe. It just adds more lemon flavor to the dish.
My first taste of mullet bottarga came in Rome about a dozen years ago, in a dish not too far off our current recipe–pasta, olive oil, bottarga and a bit of lemon. At the time all I knew (what I was told) was that the dish contained a bit of dried roe. A bit! I couldn’t believe the flavor and I vowed if I ever got the chance, I’d get my hands on some. Opportunity arrived in a visit to Sicily a couple of years later, where I saw a lot of tuna bottarga. While I never ate it in pasta on that trip, or even saw it grated much (once, over scallops), slices of bottarga were a common part of a Sicilian antipasti presentation, often accompanied with fresh lemon, some olive oil and sliced bread. Sicilian bottarga is softer, and funkier, than the mullet bottarga I see today. While I did manage to smuggle a piece back into the US when I opened it up back in Cambridge it smelled off to me. Good bottarga has pronounced aroma–briny, marine–but also clean. It shouldn’t smell fermented or bad.
Ken has been kind of obsessed with bottarga ever since reading about it a couple of years ago, so when he found out about Cortez Bottarga from Florida he immediately ordered a 4-ounce piece, then let it languish (cryovacked) in the back of our fridge for a year while we waited for the right occasion and combination of people to take it out. It’s also taken us almost that long to decide that we would blog about it. It’s a fairly obscure corner of Italian cuisine, but one that deserves to be better known. I hope you decide to try it.