On my subway ride to work, there’s one conductor who says, “This is Times Square, Center of the Universe. You have connections to the N, R, A, C, E, F, D, and Q trains…”
Center of the Universe or not, as I’ve mentioned before Manhattan at its best isn’t the easiest place in which to live, and at its worst it’s a cockroach-infested hellhole. Maybe it’s time for me to move out.
Or maybe not. To everyone reading this in the suburbs, you can keep your three-car-garage, your manicured lawn, your 1.5 million sq ft mall. For one simple reason. Which is: for the curious home cook such as myself, this town is paradise. The availability of obscure ingredients here is like nowhere else I’ve lived. And I’m not just talking about forays into unfamiliar cuisines from such far-away places as Ethiopia, Korea or New Jersey. I’m talking about the pleasure to be found in revisiting a seemingly familiar culinary tradition, plumbing its depths, and looking beyond the obvious.
For instance: Italian.
When people speak of “Italian” food in this country, what they often mean is the slippery, indigestible fare of an Olive Garden TV commercial: fettucine alfredo, baked zitti, spaghetti with meatballs. I have nothing against these dishes. In fact I enjoyed a fine eggplant-parmesan-on-a-hero this very evening from my local Italian joint. Its authenticity was questionable – it was prepared by a Guatemalan and the place is owned by a pair of Moroccans – but it nonetheless hit the spot.
However when it comes to real Italian, I implore you to leave you comfort zone and make contact with things which are – by American standards – unorthodox. Many surprises await. Indeed my father just returned from the city of Ferrara in the north of Italy, where he dined on the local speciality of Assina. This seductive sounding dish is, in fact, Donkey. The last time I looked it is not to be found on the Olive Garden menu. Very good, apparently. Came in a lovely stew. Tasted like beef.
So allow me to suggest two great Italian ingredients for those willing to venture off-piste. Don’t worry, these are not ‘stunt-eating’ dishes like donkey stew. But neither are they to be found in your local Stop n’ Shop. Ladies and gents, I present: Bottarga (cured mullet or tuna roe) and Guanciale (pig’s jowl.)
Bottarga – as mentioned above – is the cured roe pouch of either the grey mullet or tuna. It can be bought pre-grated, or in chunks which are dense and slightly plasticky to the touch. I bought some from an Italian bloke in Chelsea Market called Roberto. (According to the cruel but not wholly inaccurate stereotype, there are two breeds of Italians. The attractive, urbane ones who come from the North. And the unshaven, rather shiftless ones. They come from the South. Roberto – a Sardinian by birth – is definitely of the latter species.)
I asked Roberto how bottarga tastes. “Ah yes, inna Sardinia we enjoy to eat the bottarga very very much. It have, eh, how you say…”, at which point his eyes narrowed and his lips moved noiselessly as he ransacked his English vocabulary for the right descriptor. He failed. “Eh, the bottarga, it have… full flavour.” Full flavour. Well, that’s one way of putting it. As a teenager, I was once teargassed by a hoodlum in Paris. This was significantly more enjoyable than my first sniff of unadulterated bottarga, which to the unprepared nostril is nothing short of unspeakable.
Bottarga is the very quintessence of fishiness. Imagine anchovies, condensed to their essence, and then left in a warm closet to ripen.
But like anchovies, when diluted and then brightened with citrus, parsley and garlic, Bottarga becomes transcendent. Fishy, yes, but savory and complex and satisfying. I owe this recipe (which I have adapted slightly) to Matt Wright’s most excellent Wrightfood blog. Never has a dish been simpler yet more compelling. Photo at the top of this post.
Spaghetti with Bottarga, parsley and lemon
- 2 good handfuls of spaghetti
- 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
- 1 handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
- Bottarga to taste – about 2 tablespoons*
- Olive oil – about 5 tablespoons
- Squeeze of lemon
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest.
*If your Bottarga comes pre-grated, you’re in good shape. If it comes solid, you will need to mince it very finely.
Warm two bowl. Cook your spaghetti to al dente.
Meanwhile, in a frying pan, mix together 1 tablespoon of bottarga and the garlic with the olive oil. Warm this over a low flame to take the edge off the garlic.
Drain the pasta when done. Tip into the oil/bottarga pan. Toss to combine. Add squeeze of lemon. Add in the parsley, pinches at a time, until everything is nicely coated with green flecks. Add more bottarga to taste.
Divide between two warm bowls, and a little more oil and parsley if needed.
Serve straight away.
If Bacon’s posh sibling is Pancetta, then Pancetta’s aristocratic cousin is Guanciale. Pigs have a lovely and fleshy double-chin, and this is where Guanciale comes from. In comparison to bacon or pancetta, Guanciale is monstrously fatty, rather more unctuous in texture, and definitely more porky in flavour. It is most commonly associated with the pasta sauce sugo all’amatriciana.
Improperly made with pancetta or bacon, amatriciana can be overwhelmed by smokiness and taste like you’ve just thrown some bacon into a simple tomato sauce. (Which you probably have.) But using guanciale, it develops its own personality, and tastes altogether more porky, rich and rewarding. Recipe below, reproduced without permission from Mario Batali’s excellent Babbo cookbook. (Original recipe here.)
Only change I would make to this recipe is my preference of rigatone to bucatini, but that’s immaterial. Also if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own tomato sauce, a good pre-made brand is fine. (The Rao’s brand is expensive, but the best I’ve tried.) Substituting parmigiano reggiano (which you are more likely to have) for the pecorino is acceptable.
¾ pound guanciale thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves
1 onion, halved and sliced ½-inch thick
1 ½ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 ½ cups basic tomato sauce
1 pound bucatini
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
Pecorino Romano, for grating
1. Being 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt.
2. Place the guanciale slices in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan in a single layer and cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, turning occasionally. Remove the meat to a plate lined with paper towels and discard half the fat, leaving enough to coat the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes. Return the guanciale to the pan with the vegetables, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions, garlic and guanciale are light golden brown. Season with salt and pepper, add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Cook the bucatini in the boiling water according to the package directions, until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce. Add the parsley leaves, increase the heat to high and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among four warmed pasta bowls. Top with freshly grated Pecorino cheese and serve immediately.
Basic Tomato Sauce
Makes 4 cups
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt, to taste
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.
- Gonads on toast.
- Cockroach Of The Sea.
- Caesar Salad: the taste of loneliness.
- Arrivederci Nonna.
- In defense of the Happy Meal.
- Fish Soup, and why the French are annoying.
- Baking turns me into Woody Allen.
- Tuber Magnatum: worth selling a kidney for?
- Off-piste Italian.
- The silliest meal of my life (followed by a good mushroom recipe)
- Summer’s nearly over. Thank God.
- Prozac, Xanax, Chicken Tikka Masala.