Today I am posting a pasta recipe that here in Italy signals the onset of summer. We're experiencing a wonderful heat wave, and banqueting is my favorite way of celebrating good things. I hate the cold, you see.
Salt gets bad press, and it doesn't deserve to. Some of the world’s greatest foods get their flavor from lots of salt. Ever had Malossol caviar (Malossol is Russian for 'a little salt')? What about Prosciutto? Do you like cheese? There is very little cheese that is salt-free. How about baccalà - salt preserved cod for Atlantic crossings? I could go on and on.
|Image © buonissimo.org|
But are you familiar with bottarga–that delightful salted product that is treasured in Sardinia and Sicily and even in mainland Liguria and Calabria where it is called ovotarica? It is sometimes also named 'poor man's caviar', but this is a demeaning moniker, as bottarga is bottarga is bottarga!
The first thing to understand about this bizarre food is that it is the salted, dried roe of either Muggine (or Cefalo), Italian for Flathead Grey Mullet (Mugil cephalus) or tuna. Sardinia prefers the grey mullet roe, whereas Sicily prefers tuna roe. Both types are great, provided they are suitably dried; the semi-dried product is in fact not nearly as dramatic.
The roe is expertly removed from the fish and then salted for about a week before being pressed and then hung to be air dried for about 30 days. In fact the length of drying is important.
Now what do you do when you pawn a family heirloom for some of this salty luxury? The answer is to keep it really simple. Either eat it sliced as a vodka appetizer, like during Roman Jewish Seders; or use it to make a very simple pasta dish.
Linguine with Bottarga and Hazelnuts
If bottarga is absolutely impossible for you to obtain, you can substitute it with this little trick an aforementioned chef friend taught me: blend 4 anchovy fillets with 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and 2 fistfuls of breadcrumbs. Toast the mixture in a non-stick pan for 3-4 minutes, and proceed as follows, assembling:
500 g (1.1 lb) linguine
80 g (1/3 cup) bottarga (or its clever substitute replacement)
50 g (1/4 cup) shelled hazelnuts, coarsely ground
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small sprig of Italian flat leaf parsley (optional), chopped
100 ml (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
Sauté the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes, then discard. Add the ground hazelnuts to the oil, and toast them briefly. Add the chopped parsley (if you're using it) and remove the saucepan from the stove, setting it aside for the moment.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of very lightly salted water. While the pasta is cooking, pare very, very thin slices from the block of bottarga with a vegetable peeler. For a milder effect, simply grate the bottarga into a bowl, add the hazelnuts in their oil, and stir until you obtain a paste. Drain the pasta and pour it into a large skillet; stir in the sauce and cook over a brisk flame for 1 minute, tossing the pasta energetically.
Go crazy with the pepper mill and splash just a suspicion of lemon juice.