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.
Looks delicious! I love bottarga but haven’t tried cooking with it myself yet. I’ll have to try this!
HI, Sheila–It really is remarkable stuff. Normally, by the time I finish photographing food, I’m not that hungry, but I hoovered up about half of this recipe no problem. Ken
I’m impressed with this. Don’t think I’ve ever seen it or tasted it, but I bet I would love it. Sounds like it would be good on bread!!! A beautiful pasta.
Hi, Mimi–I bet YOU would love it. Buy a few ounces and find out. Jody tells me that sometimes in Sicily you also see it as an hors d’oeuvre–very thinly sliced, atop a slice of bread, topped with a shaved piece of garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Ken
I love bottarga, but unfortunately, I am the only one in this house. My Pugliese friend moved back to Italy, so I have nobody I can serve spaghetti e bottarga to, and cannot bring myself to make it for myself alone. I love how you used preserved lemon instead of the traditional regular lemon. Wonderful recipe!
Oh, Darya, considering all the wonderful food you make for others, I don’t think the once-in-awhile indulgence in bottarga for yourself is out of order. The preserved lemons a piquant little grace note in the dish. I think you should make this – and if anyone asks, just tell them is one more simple preserved lemon dish. :-) Ken
Fish roe! Wow, it’s been a while since I had some! I love, love, love fish roe I couldn’t tell you enough. Your pasta dish is fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing it. Even though I cannot find fish roe anywhere within a hundred miles of me, I will keep this recipe and dream about it in the meantime.
DRIED fish roe – even better! You know, ordinarily I would suggest that someone in your position do what I did–order some bottarga online. But you actually live on the opposite side of the world and I have no idea if that’s even possible without it costing an arm and a leg. You have my sympathies. I imagine you sitting there, like Proust, pining for tastes that are lost to you. :-) Thank you for stopping by. Ken
Fantastic post Ken. This is a completely new ingredient to me and I am impressed. I have boiled and fried cod’s roe. That is very tasty with a poached egg on top. They say it is one of the best things one can eat.
Conor, you are our ideal reader–knowledgable, open-minded and curious. With so much of this stuff, I’m afraid if a light isn’t shown on it, it will simply disappear. I’m thrilled that this man in Florida is attempting to establish a bottarga culture in his Florida fishing village. I suspect that bottarga is much more readily available to you than it is to me, just because of physical proximity. Is fresh cod’s roe something that you see regularly in fish markets? I believe it was once a delicacy in this part of the world, at least for fishing families, but I think it has all but disappeared. I have a friend living north of Boston who’s something of a food historian. I’ll ask her about it. Shad is the only fresh roe I’ve seen in the US (although I once saw the roe of striped bass at the Bastille market in Paris). It would be wonderful if roe made a comeback. I’ve heard the same thing as you about roe as a desirable food (protein rich), but I suspect whomever made that didn’t know about cholesterol. Ken
The more specialist (not just taking salmon and other common varieties from the wholesaler) fish shops sell cod roe in season. My guy tells me that it tends to be older men who favour it as they remember their fathers eating it and really enjoying it too. Many modern families tend to prefer their food a few steps from the reality that you are in fact preserving with posts like this keep up the good works.
My post is at http://conorbofin.com/2013/03/25/omg-what-is-that-thing-you-arent-going-to-eat-it-are-you/
I have more to say in a comment on your truly excellent post, but it’s odd–I can’t believe we don’t see cod roe here. I can only conclude that it must be shipped elsewhere, perhaps to you guys. We’re obviously in complete agreement that more people ought to be A LOT closer to the sources of their food. Really intriguing. Thanks. Ken
At the risk of getting on your nerves by too much repetition, but … really … your photographs are simply splendid! They make you want to eat everything you show! I love bottarga but as with Darya’s comment above, it tends to be primarily me in the family. I grated some over squid ink pasta once … and am about to try it over carciofi. It’s great over salads too … or just plain over a piece of toasted bread. Here is a link to a company that sells good quality Italian products in the States, including bottarga. I can most definitely endorse the person behind it, Beatrice Ughi ! https://www.gustiamo.com/category/bottarga/
It’s a cross I’m doomed to carry, praise for my photos driving me slowly insane. For the sake of our readers, I’ll bear it. (Thank you, compliments are always welcome.) Isn’t is funny how both you and Darya have seen the love-it-or-hate-it response close up. Thank you so much for the link–I will definitely check out her offerings. Rialto is currently serving a squid ink pasta dish with bottarga and the two–squid ink and bottarga–definitely harmonize. In the meantime, I think you and Darya need to get together for a private meal. Ken
I forgot to ask, since you know seem to know about food sources for the US, do you have an equally reliable link for bottarga for European readers (other than Italians, obviously, whom I assume can buy it locally). Thanks. Ken
Simple and very delicious looking. Ever since reading about it in Bon Appetit, I’m very curious to know how it bottarga taste as I love fresh fish roe in curry. But we get none here in Singapore :(
Hi, Vasun–thanks for stopping by. I can’t recall where I first heard about bottarga–I think it may have been in a review of a New York restaurant. At that point Jody wasn’t cooking with it. Some things can just be too difficult to sell here before the dining public catches up (e.g. one of my favorites: tripe baked with tomato sauce). It’s not that people now recognize the term bottarga, but that their palates are more adventurous, not so easily put off by unfamiliar tastes and aromas. Anyway, I had the same response as you after reading about it: I NEED TO TRY THIS! Some people believe that Indonesian fermented shrimp paste performs the same function in Asian culinary cultures as garum and bottarga do in Mediterranean ones. Thank for stopping by. I’m going to make your chicken curry! Ken
South East Asian shrimp past is called belachan & Thais also have a v similar version of this. It smells like smelly socks. But becomes very mellow after added to chilli pastes and curries. So delicious. I think all these fermented/cured ingredients have the ‘umami’ factor. There’s a special page devoted to ‘umami’ ingredients in this months Bon Appetit. Thanks for replying! Can’t wait for your next food experiment. And yes! Do try the chicken curry. Adjust the amt of curry paste to your liking. It’s really not that spicy once u had yoghurt. :) cheers!
I really like bottarga and am bookmarking your recipe for next dinner with friends.
Have a lovely weekend.
Thank you, Lou. I’m honored, given where you live, that you would consider our recipe in lie of other ones a bit more local. The one thing I’ll say is that preserved lemons and some hot peppers make a great mange à trois (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). I know that you’ll serve the dish with great bread. Ken
Dear Ken, I wish I was from Italy and even though I studied and lived in that beautiful country for many years I am now back to Switzerland, since ages…no bottarga culture here!
Mange à trois :) I love it!
I wish you a lovely and relaxing sunday.
No bottarga culture here? Lou, I’m sensing a marketing opportunity. :-) Ken
Lovely and also educational as ever. I knew nothing (or almost nothing) about Bottarga – Bo what? Now I can pull myself up to my full height and explain, and credit you of course. Sophie x
Thank you, Sophie. I can’t believe that those wonderful little shops in Venice that serve the Venetian equivalent of tapas don’t have slices of bottarga over little croutons (not that I happened to notice since I was so busy stuffing my face with baby octopus) while you were there. Anyway, it’s wonderful stuff and should you encounter one in the street you’ll now know what to do. Ken
I’m inspired to search out bottarga now. I have seen it on menu’s here in the Seattle area, although I have never had the pleasure of tasting. I love how you introduce new ideas and ingredients, yet keep the recipes simple and doable for us non-chefs! Every time I visit your blog I leave with something valuable. This time…soaking the peppers to loosen the seeds. Brilliant.
Aw, you’re sweet. We do like introducing people to things a little off the beaten path, and we do try to keep things simple, although Jody and I sometimes have a dispute over exactly what “simple” means. :-) But I would also say that one of the main determinants behind the level of complexity is that it’s food we cook ourselves. Often. We do cook things that involve a lot more steps, but not as often. (I know I’m going to eat these words–Jody will show up next week with an idea for suckling pig or a southern Italian riff on Haggis.) Anyway, try something with bottarga in it–if it’s appealing, make the jump at home. You can see from some of the other comments how devoted folks become to it. Ken
Thanks for this post I am always excited to learn about new ingredients. I have never heard of Bottarga before but it sounds fantastic. Can’t wait to get mt hands on some. Have you tried it in any other dishes? I don’t eat pasta so how would you recommend I try it?
Bottarga IS fantastic. I’m with you on new ingredients, as long as they’re not the molecular gastronomical kind. Regarding bottarga in other recipes, I’ve only eaten it straight (sliced, bread, a bit of garlic, evoo, squeeze o’ lemon), but I can easily imagine it in French style scrambled eggs (if you don’t know what that means, Google “Gordon Ramsey scrambled eggs”), also in risotto. I think it could also work in a seafood salad, but it would require a bit more thought. Think about starch, about seafood, about where you’d put those together. In any event, think of it as something that gets added at the end, so there’s minimal cooking involved, or just grate it on top. Ken
Karasumi is a delicacy in Japan and we typically eat it during the new year festivities but I never really thought it was something to rave about probably mainly because it is too salty for me as we eat it just as is and not cooked with anything. I think I like it Italian style. You might get some idea of how we consider it from this web page: http://www.bottargaclub.com/karasumi_recipe.html
How fascinating! Thank you, Ayako. Given it’s strength, I could see why people would eat it straight in SMALL portions, with beer. But that’s what they do with uni too, right? Thanks again–great link. Ken
Sorry, I was wrong about the “new year” reference. I was thinking about “kazunoko” which is herring roe. All these roes are best had (yes, small portions but we have everything in small portions anyway ^^) with saké and my preference would be cold saké. Beer esp. Japanese beer is great to start with but saké would be the ultimate choice I would think.
I *think* I’ve seen bottarga in a shop before, but passed them by as I had no idea what to do with them. Yet true to Murphy’s law, couldn’t find any on the weekend when I was intentionally looking. Clearly I should have given in to impulse and bought some the first time!
If you come across it again, pick it up. Given your tastes, I’m pretty sure you’ll get the whole fishy umami thing–and if other people aren’t crazy about it you can always whip out one of your stunning pastries for dessert! I suggest your Triumph of Gluttony. :-) Ken
Wow, I love this post for so many reasons. I’ve never seen dried fish roe, but I see shad roe in the store these days and I don’t know how to use it. They look like wet lungs. Do you have any non- dried recipes here? I’m going to go look. I love your use of the preserved lemons here and fresh herbs too. This dish is my kind of eating–seemingly simple–but far from it. In this post, your photos are worth 1000 words. Thank you for this.
Wet lungs–ha! I once saw sheep lungs on display in an open market in Athens and all I could think of was, “I’d have to be really hungry… I’d have to be really hungry…” We have two shad roe recipes–Tagliatelle with Shad Roe, Pancetta and Spring Peas (http://wp.me/p1t5xh-1wK) and Shad Roe with Brown Butter, Capers and Ginger (http://wp.me/p1t5xh-1wK). The latter post predates our current photo-friendly theme so the pictures of the roe sacs are outsize and a bit, er, startling. But the dish is great! Ken
Also, great tip with the chilis. I love them and spend way too much time trying to remove the seeds. That water trick is invaluable.
:-) Just make sure to blot them with a paper towel before throwing them into a pan with hot olive oil or butter. Ken
This sounds like a wonderful dish, Ken. I’ve never thought of using preserved lemon in a pasta dish but it makes perfect sense to do so. Your use of bottarga here is wonderful. I love the flavor and aroma it brings to a warm dish of pasta. I think we may have talked about bottarga in another post several months ago. In any event, I’ve been playing with some that I bought from Anna Maria, intending to prepare it for Zia. As you can well imagine, she’s going to love it. She’s not one for chilies, though, so I’ll have to make your dish for myself. I know. Tragic. ;)
Hi, John–Great minds think alike! I’m glad the you got some bottarga from Anna Maria Fish Company – I hope you’re enjoying yours as much as we are ours. The chilies are a great addition to the dish, but if you make it with just the preserved lemon and bottarga I’m sure it will be fabulous. I can’t wait until we get real tomatoes and we can try them in the dish as well. In the meantime, I’ll offer up a culinary moment of silence for you as you eat the regular recipe all by yourself. :-) Ken
I absolutely LOVE bottarga / The essence of the sea and fish flavors!…my pasta version with bottarga is a bit different (http://benvenutocellini.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/an-ancient-mediterranean-taste/)..but now I would like to taste your recipe…What about the wine in this case??
Buongiorno, Luana–We agree about the flavor of bottarga: it’s really one of the world’s great taste sensations, like white truffles. I like drinking local wine with local food, but there’s only a limited selection of Sardinian wine in this country and most of it’s Cannonau (Carignan)–delicious, but red. We’re going to cycling in Sardinia in late September, and I’m hoping to drink some interesting local whites, particularly DOC Vermentinos, which I think might be quite good with this. Ken
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We were only a few, to work the eggs of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. All the fish is bound by ICAT, tons of tuna that can be caught, assigned to the individual fisherman. Much of the catch ends up in Japan and we have a hard time finding tuna. If you draw tuna percent, less than half will be females, and if the fish is caught, it is not immediately bled, will go bad, because the blood goes in necrosis, damaging all the fish, and can cause serious damage to those who eat meat . I Tonni that we select are processed immediately, ensuring the highest quality, bottarga only getting first choice. Our products are appreciated by the great chefs in the world.