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Bottarga, an acquired taste, well worth the brine

The briny taste of bottarga is an acquired love. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

The briny taste of bottarga is an acquired love. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Like cilantro or sea urchin, bottarga is a taste you either love or hate. I was hooked the first time I tasted spaghetti alla bottarga on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. The al dente pasta dressed with fruity olive oil and dusted with amber-gold grated bottarga tasted like summer on a plate. And I loved the cured mullet roe’s sharp, briny funk.

Bottarga is hardly a new ingredient: It has been traded up and down the Mediterranean for thousands of years. But all of a sudden it’s been popping up on local menus, and home cooks no longer have to smuggle it home from Italy. There’s even a guy making it in Florida, of all places.

I’ve been stuffing my socks with vacuum-packed bottarga on every trip from Italy for years, never knowing when I’d have the chance to buy more again. It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s not the price of caviar or truffles either, more of a semi-affordable luxury. And the beauty is that it keeps — and keeps — so even if you shave off a little for a pasta dish and don’t get back to it for a month or two, the salted, cured roe will be just fine.

I can’t tell you how happy — no, the word is “safe” — I feel knowing that I have my piece of bottarga tucked away, ready to make spaghetti alla bottarga or a crostini topped with bottarga whenever I get the urge. This is my comfort food. Who’s to say you can’t adopt one later in life? Whenever I eat bottarga, I think of those turquoise Mediterranean seas and the protected lagoons of Cabras, where the very best bottarga di muggine is made.

Actually, bottarga comes in two varieties. Bottarga di muggine made from the roe of cefalo, or gray mullet, is a specialty of Sardinia, Bottarga di tonno hailsfrom Sicily (and in somecases Calabria), where tuna has been fished (and overfished) for centuries.

I knew I was crazy about bottarga di muggine, but tuna? Not so much. That is until a friend insisted on taking me to an eccentric seafood restaurant in Italy where we ate everything raw and still wriggling. I remember the sweet, sticky shrimp and a ripe, juicy and very red tomato, halved and topped with a slice of tuna bottarga the size of a credit card. That extraordinary combination — silky tomato against the deep salt funk of the bottarga — changed my mind.

Bottarga is sold either vacuum-packed or sealed in beeswax. As long as it hasn’t been opened, it’s best if used within 15 months but will still be fine for two or three years. Bottarga is sensitive to ultraviolet light, so it is best stored in a dry and dark place.

To use it, open the packet and peel back the membrane of only as much as you think you’re going to use. If you plan to use it all in a few days, you can just leave it out. Otherwise, put it in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator. Some people don’t even do that, leaving it in a cool place, such as a wine cellar.

For grating bottarga di muggine, Valentino chef Nico Chessa suggests letting a piece dry for a few days in the refrigerator. That should make it easier to grate. Also, the best tool for bottarga di muggine is a fine microplane. And don’t use too much pressure.

Because tuna bottarga is softer, it’s hard to grate without turning into a paste. The better use is to slice it very thinly with a knife after cutting away the outside skin.

The beauty is that once opened, bottarga will keep almost forever in the refrigerator. It’s always there, ready to make an impromptu appetizer or pasta dish.

Ten years ago, it was difficult to find, but now that bottarga is having a moment, it’s much more available. I guess I won’t have to be hiding it in my socks when going through customs anymore — leaving more room for wild boar salami or an obscure cheese.

Chefs find simplicity
is key to flavor

How much spaghetti alla bottarga can you eat? For more ideas on how to use it, I turned to Valentino chef Nico Chessa. He’s Sardinian and passionate about bottarga di muggine, which is called buttariga there. The best comes from the lagoons of Cabras on the coast facing Spain, and it actually has its own DOC (delimited area of production, just like a wine).

It turns out the Sardinians use bottarga all the time but never in anything too complicated. “We can go all day,” Chessa says, laughing. Spaghetti alla bottarga is the classic, and he’s put it on the new southern Italian menu that premieres at Valentino this week. “This is the case where less is more. You can use two tomatoes, olive oil, garlic — end of story.” In his recipe, an ounce of bottarga makes pasta for six. Unlike truffles, more is not necessarily better.

Another classic Sardinian dish is celery hearts cut very thin on a mandoline with just a little olive oil and the thinly sliced bottarga on top. “That’s it!” he says. “It’s the best way to respect the bottarga.”

Also traditional is bottarga with artichoke salad, sauteed artichokes or fava beans. Lately, Chessa has discovered he enjoys the cured roe on a boiled potato with olive oil. At home in Italy, he likes to take fresh ricotta and bake it slowly for a couple of hours until it becomes firm, then slice it and serve with bottarga shaved over as an appetizer. That I’m going to have to try.

Tuna bottarga has a bolder, stronger flavor. It’s also softer and more moist, so it’s used a little differently. Sicilian-born chef Celestino Drago makes spaghetti aglio e olio with pepperoncino and shaves the bottarga over it. But he also serves it thinly sliced on a piece of toast with a little garlic and olive oil. “Another way,” Drago says, “is cannellini beans with a little olive oil on top - and bottarga.” Brilliant! Like an amped up tuna and bean salad, substituting bottarga for the canned tuna.

And when Drago makes his spaghetti alla bottarga, he adds toasted bread crumbs for crunch. I sometimes make it that way too. His secret, though, is to grate a little bottarga into the pasta and then, using a truffle slicer, add freshly sliced bottarga on top.

Here’s one more take-away idea: yellowfin crudo (raw, as in sashimi-raw) with olive oil, bottarga and a fine dusting of yuzu zest.

SPAGHETTI WITH
BOTTARGA

25 minutes. Serves 6

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, smashed and left whole

2 cups baby heirloom tomatoes, halved

1 pound spaghetti

1 ounce bottarga, grated (about 1 tablespoon per person), divided

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of liberally salted water to a boil. In a large skillet, heat the oil and garlic over medium heat until hot. Remove the garlic and stir in the tomatoes. Remove the skillet from heat.

2. Cook the spaghetti al dente following the timing instructions on the package. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Toss the pasta with the tomato mixture in the skillet and heat over high heat. Drizzle over the cup of water along with half of the grated bottarga and several grinds of black pepper, stirring until the pasta absorbs the liquid, one to 2 minutes.

3. Remove from heat and serve at once, sprinkling over the rest of the bottarga.

NOTE: Adapted from Nico Chessa, executive chef of Valentino in Santa Monica, Calif. He recommends serving the pasta with a glass of Vermentino di Sardegna. Bottarga is available at select gourmet markets.

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