Make Your Own Bottarga

by abigail on June 29, 2010

Spaghetti con la Bottarga

Spaghetti with Bottarga

Waste not want not, or so they say.  Working on the assumption that there’s a lot of truth in that old chestnut, we’ve almost worked our way through an entire twenty pound mahi mahi.  We’ve had seared mahi mahi with green seasoning, mahi mahi and coconut curry, soy-glazed mahi mahi, mahi mahi in a creole sauce, and fish head curry.  The bones are still in the freezer and they’ll come out soon to be turned into fish stock.  And our mahi mahi was a girl, containing a lovely, large sack of roe.

I considered sautéeing the roe in a little butter, always a treat.  Then I remembered bottarga.  I’d never tasted this speciality of Sicily and Sardinia that’s made from salted and dried mullet or tuna roe.  I’d seen Anthony Bourdain’s in-laws making a pasta with bottarga in the Sardinia No Reservations episode and it looked like something I needed to try.  Alas, I don’t have any trips to Sardinia or Sicily planned for the near future.  And imported Italian bottarga is tremendously expensive, not to mention unavailable on Tortola.  So I thought I’d give it a go with my mahi mahi roe.

There’s not a whole lot of information out there on making your own bottarga, probably because whole fish roes aren’t exactly a standard pantry item.  But I did find an article Hank Shaw wrote about on the subject here and I basically followed his direction.  It wasn’t at all difficult but you do need to handle the roe very gently at the beginning of the process so as not to tear the egg pouch.

Rub the roe with olive oil, then cover the whole thing with coarse kosher salt.  Set it on a plate lined with paper towels and leave it out to dry for a week or two (I dried mine for two weeks).  Change the paper towels when they become wet and keep applying salt as needed to keep the whole roe covered.  It doesn’t need to be refrigerated while drying, but I did store mine in the fridge at night to keep it out of reach of the cat.  Bubbles likes bottarga too.  In fact, I took to carrying my bottarga with me from room to room to keep it safe.  He’s a very persistent cat.  When I was in my “office” on the balcony, my bottarga was also, catching some rays. 

Home-cured bottarga

Home-cured bottarga

It took about two weeks for my bottarga to become nice and dry, I then brushed off the salt, wrapped it in paper towel, put it in a ziploc.  It’s now resting comfortably in the fridge.  We tasted it for the first time this weekend and I have to admit I’m terribly proud of myself.  Our homemade bottarga is stunning – rich, briny, complex, tasting intensely of the sea.  It grates beautifully though it doesn’t slice quite as well.  I think it would need a longer drying time and a little pressure to get the waxy, more homogeneous look that I see in the photographs of the real Italian stuff.  But I’m happy.

I have to say making my own bottarga is one of the most thrilling things I’ve done in the kitchen in a long time.  If you ever happen to find yourself in possession of a sack of fish eggs, do try making your own bottarga.  You won’t regret it.  Your children will be disgusted (“ugh, what is that Mom?”), your husband intrigued (“can we taste it yet?”), and your cat driven absolutely mad (“meowwww!”).

Grated bottarga

Grated bottarga

Spaghetti with Bottarga

I’ve seen recipes for spaghetti with bottarga that include lemon zest or juice, hot peppers, anchovies, clams and, of all things, ricotta cheese.  For my first bottarga experience, I wanted to keep it clean and simple and let the intense flavor of the bottarga shine.  And that’s how I’ll probably keep it in future, though perhaps a whisper of lemon zest might lift the bottarga even higher.   Some cooks vigorously stir the bottarga into the garlic oil with a little of the pasta water to make a sauce with a creamier texture.  Sounds interesting and I might try that next time.

If you’ve made your own bottarga, you’ll want to peel off the dried egg sack before you grate it (that’s what looks like peeling sunburn in the photograph of my bottarga).  Bottarga is definitely expensive but a little truly does go a long way.  Buon appetito!

1/2 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 ounce bottarga, grated, plus more for shaving over the finished dish if desired
a handful of chopped Italian parsley

Put the olive oil and garlic into a pan that will be large enough to hold all the pasta later.  I used a straight-sided sauté pan.  Heat gently for a few minutes to allow the flavor of the garlic to perfume the olive oil.  Don’t let the garlic brown or your sauce will be bitter.  Remove the pan from the heat and reserve.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil (bottarga is already quite salty).  Cook the spaghetti until it’s al dente.  Drain the spaghetti and put it in the pan with the olive oil and garlic.  Toss to combine.  Sprinkle the bottarga and parsley over the pasta and toss again to combine all the ingredients well.  Serve immediately, topped with more thinly shaved bottarga if desired.  Pasta doesn’t like to wait. Serves 2 greedy buggers as a main course.

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1 Bones June 29, 2010 at 11:06 am

Close your eyes and eat, the taste of the sea is spectacular in this dish, once again keeping it simple is the answer; a lesson that many restaurants need to relearn.

2 abigail July 7, 2010 at 8:24 am

Thanks honey!!!

3 Tinky June 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I am completely in awe of you, Abigail. This sounds completely amazing.

And I love the comment from Bones; it’s true that sometimes one wonders why fancy chefs can’t leave well enugh alone……….

4 abigail July 7, 2010 at 8:23 am

Thanks Tinky! I had fun with this one.

5 Tinky June 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I meant “enough.” Some day I’ll learn to type.

6 Andrew July 2, 2010 at 9:03 am

I read the article and was thrilled when I was invited to dinner to sample this magnificent dish. It is everything that is described above. The first thing I did was to put my face in the bowl of steaming pasta, the unmistakable fragrance of the sea hit me like pounding surf. My first taste was unexpected, I expected a robust experience but instead found the flavour to be subtle and complex with little bursts of salty ocean mingled with a hint of lemon and garlic. As Bones said, simple is best and trust me Abigail knows that all too well. Hopefully more fish roe will find its way into Abigail’s pantry very soon. Brilliant!

7 abigail July 7, 2010 at 8:22 am

Why thank you Andy! You’re one of my favorite guests to have at our table.

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