Despite its popularity on Italian menus a few years back, bottarga still feels exotic and intimidating for the average home cook. And the fact that you can’t find the dried mullet or tuna roe at exotic-food emporiums such as Dean & DeLuca or Balducci’s says much about the lack of retail demand.
That’s too bad because these red slabs of fresh, salty flavor ought to have survived faddishness. Bottarga is a wonderful kitchen shortcut, providing an intense bit of wake-up for pastas, pizzas, and eggs.
For those interested in experimenting, BlackSalt can procure bottarga with 24 to 48 hours’ notice. Fishmonger M.J. Gimbar says mullet bottarga costs around $15 an ounce, tuna around $15 to $20 an ounce. Online retailers are also abundant.
Peter Pastan, chef/owner of Obelisk in Dupont Circle and 2 Amys in Cleveland Park, says he first tried the delicacy in Sicily 25 years ago. “It was just thick slices on a plate with bread and butter, and I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do with it,” he says. Now he uses it whenever he wants to add a “clean but super-intense essence of the sea.”
Pastan warns against buying bottarga that’s already grated, which he likens to buying grated cheese: “It loses 90 percent of the flavor.” Instead, invest in a chunk, keep it in the fridge, and use it within a week or two, after which it begins to lose intensity and color.
Pastan prefers the delicate mullet bottarga to the tuna. His five favorite ways to use it are to grate or slice it over fresh shell beans, toss it with buttery noodles and greens, grate it over pizza just out of the oven, sprinkle it over fried or poached eggs, and slice it onto buttered toast.
“It’s an umami food, high in glutamates,” Pastan says, referring to the elusive quality that makes ingredients such as truffles, mushrooms, and soy irresistible. “It makes everything else taste better.”
This appears in the February, 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.
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