Pasta and Fish Roe: Sardinia's Mac and Cheese

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I doubt that very many people around these parts have thought of making bottarga lately. Other than some secret Sardinians and the 30 or so folks who came to the sold-out anniversary tasting that we did at the Delicatessen on a recent Monday, it's probably not been front of mind for many folks. Honesty, I know I hadn't given it much mind at all until about two months ago.

It's funny how a food can stay sort of off at the edge of my cooking radar for a long time and then, one day, for whatever odd reason of fate, it comes up, hits home, and stays there for years to come. That's what happened with this bottarga-pasta thing. It's not like I've never heard of it and it's hardly a secret—if you take even the slightest look into Sardinian cooking, you're going to find it. I've known about it for ages but basically ignored it. I'm sure I even ate it a few times. But bottarga reentered my cooking repertoire when I was in San Francisco in January and had it for dinner at La Ciccia in Noe Valley (at the recommendation of Celia from Omnivore Books , which is a great shop if you like cookbooks!). Anyways, went for dinner with cheese expert Daphne Zepos and had a great meal, one of the highlights of which was this dish. (Great octopus stew as well!) Went back again with Daphne in late February, ate the dish again, and liked it again. And ... I've been making it at home a couple times a week ever since.

This is a very simple dish to make. Strange to the average American palate, to be sure, but in its homeland it's pretty much everyday eating—sort of Sardinian soul food, I guess. To learn more about it I went to my standard top reference for Sardinian cooking, Efisio Farris's great book, Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey . If you're down in Texas definitely go to his restaurants, Arcodoro in Houston and Arcodoro & Pomodoro in Dallas, where you can get this dish and dozens of other great Sardinian specialties. Efisio and his wife Lori are the folks who send us all that super good Sardinian stuff we get—the fregola and malloreddus pastas, really good olive oils, Corbezzelo honey, etc. Anyways, I looked up the dish in Efisio's book and got a bit of background, followed that up with a few conversations online with Lori, and then a bit more research from other books and a few friends, and although I really need to go to Sardinia to see and eat this stuff in its proper home environment, in the moment I've gotten a sense of it and figured I could share it here.

While here bottarga is about as totally exotic as one could get, in Sardinia, Lori Farris told me, "Everyone has a jar of it in their refrigerator." Which makes me realize I should back up slightly and tell you what this stuff actually is. Bottarga is basically, dried, pressed tuna roe. Could also be made from mullet, but right now what we've got is tuna. In its straight-up form it's the whole roe sack—small, really. I've seen them anywhere from like three to six inches long and maybe a couple inches across. If you've seen shad roe it's akin to that, I suppose. You shave off thin slices and eat it as antipasto, much as you would bits of prosciutto di Parma or Iberico ham. It's also eaten on the southern side of the Mediterranean—Majid Mahjoub told me that it's typically eaten on an appetizer plate with almonds (both raw and dry-roasted), tuna, preserved vegetables, ricotta, hardboiled eggs, preserved lemons, figs, etc. I've actually been told that bottarga (or bottargue in French) is the "caviar of the Tunisian Jews," so I'm sure it'll come up more often in the future as we continue to explore the foods and culture of Tunisia.

While this pasta dish is so simple it's almost silly, curing the bottarga takes a bit more skill. The roe sack has to be carefully extracted from the fresh fish, then salted and dried to preserve it properly. We have the bottarga right now in the easier-to-use grated-and-sold-in-the-jar form, though the more I'm getting into it the more I'm getting ready to have us try to stock the whole roe. Anyway, whether you have it grated in advance or shave it off the whole cured roe sack at home, it's pretty powerfully tasty stuff.

I'm sure pasta with bottarga isn't for everyone, but anyone who's into full-flavored, slightly-strange-to-the-average-American-palate things like anchovies or wild mushrooms will probably like it. It's not like it's really all that "strong" or anything ... it's just got that sort of big league flavor that probably won't sit well with everyone, but that's probably true for a lot of what we serve and sell. To me it's got a really compelling, exotic flavor: earthy, slightly salty, and someone will probably say sexy so I'll beat them to it by saying it myself.

In the jar and in the fridge, bottarga keeps fine pretty much forever, so it's an easy thing to have on hand. If I have my notes right, Nancy Harmon Jenkins called it "caviar for pasta lovers." And a little bit goes a long way. As Vanessa Sly said very astutely, bottarga brings "a great amount of flavor per square inch." When he was up here last year, Efisio was talking to me about the bottarga: "When I take a bit it really reminds me of the ocean, of Sardinia." Especially this time of year, when there's not a whole lot of sun showing up around these parts and laying on the beach seems very far away. I don't know if there's any vitamin D in tuna roe, but I'll take all the help I can get!

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Happily, the whole thing is extremely simple. The olive oil goes into a warm but not super hot sauté pan. Add a bit of the sun dried garlic. I'm not the hugest garlic eater so I don't put a lot in, but you can add as much as you like. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water. I've been cooking it increasingly al dente and liking it all the more for that. When the pasta is a minute or so away from being done, add a teaspoon or so per person of ground bottarga to the warm oil. You don't want to really cook the bottarga—just heat it and infuse its flavor into the olive oil.

As soon as the pasta is done (very al dente), add it to the garlic and oil in the sauté pan. Add another teaspoonful of bottarga per person and your chopped arugula or parsley, a good dose of Marash pepper flakes (terrific red pepper from Turkey), and a bit more of the olive oil. Toss well so it's really hot but don't cook too long. Serve as is, maybe with a bit of olive oil drizzled on top. People can add more bottarga at the table too, of course. That's it. The kind of thing that takes 15 minutes to make, tastes great, and is good for you.

Lori Farris told me this dish is basically "the macaroni and cheese of Sardinia," which I think puts it in context, and helps explain why it's now on my list of easy-to-make-after-a-long-day-at-work types of dishes. It also explains why there are dozens of variations out there. Efisio has one where he adds fresh ricotta, which makes the dish much richer but still very good. You can also add a bit of roasted red pepper. Many people use half butter and half olive oil.

You get the idea though—you can riff off it any way you like. I'm sure every Sardinian household probably had its own version of the dish, and I'm sure every Sardinian kid is probably loyal to the way he or she grew up eating it.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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