Ari's Five Foods

Five Foods for the Week of March 20, 2010

Greetings and welcome to spring!

Before I even get into the actual five foods, I wanted to wish a happy anniversary to everyone here. Hard to believe but sure enough, 28 years in the books! The anniversary wishes really do go out to everyone here because, while I guess it’s sort of not really deniable that Paul and I are the people who started the whole thing 28 years ago last week, the exceptionally obvious reality is that none of it would exist without all the other thousands of people—that would clearly include you—that have worked over all the two point eight decades. As we all know, ideas are great but it’s making them into a reality that’s the key. And as we also all know incredibly well in the food business the way that we do it here, it REALLY doesn’t matter much how great someone’s idea of the food was. Unlike books, cds, software, shoes and appliances handmade food really has no guarantee that what was good on one day will be anywhere near that good the next. Sometimes that’s because of nature, sometimes human error, sometimes some of both. . . but the point is just that if we’ve served a lot of good food over the years it’s to the credit of the many thousands of people who made it happen.

So, Happy Anniversary, and here’s to many more years to come. And as per the 2020 vision, I look forward to taking our already good food and service to radically higher levels over the next decade.

Getting back to food of the moment . . . (not that they’re particularly monumental or meaningful from an anniversarial standpoint but . . . ) here’s five foods to fit into your eating this week!

Happy everything!


1. Pasta with Grated Bottarga

I doubt that very many people around these parts of thought of making lately. Other than some secret Sardinians and the thirty or so folks who came to the sold out anniversary tasting that we did at the Delicatessen last Monday it’s probably not been front of mind for many folks. Honesty, I know that I hadn’t given much mind at all until about two months ago.

It’s funny how a food can stay sort of off at the edge of my cooking radar for a long time and then one day, for whatever odd reason of fate, it comes up, hits home and stays there for years to come. That’s what happened with this bottarga-pasta thing. It’s not like I’ve never heard of it and it’s hardly a secret—if you take even the slightest look into Sardinian cooking you’re going to find it. I’ve known about it for ages but basically ignored it. I’m sure I even ate it a few times and liked it fine but somehow it never registered in any meaningful way and I really almost never made it at home. But bottarga reentered my cooking repertoire when I was in SF in January and had it for dinner at La Ciccia in Noe Valley (at the recommendation of Celia from Omnivore Books, which is a great shop if you like cookbooks!) Anyways, went for dinner with Daphne Zepos (who’ll be here in June teaching the two-day ZingTrain Cheese Mastery Course) and had a great meal, one of the highlights of which was this dish. (Great octopus stew as well!) Went back again with Daphne in late February, ate the dish again, and liked it again. And . . . . I’ve been making it at home a couple times a week ever since.

Like most foods like, this is a very simple dish to make. Strange to the average American palate, to be sure but in it’s homeland it’s pretty much everyday eating—sort of Sardinian soul food, I guess. To learn more about it I went to my standard top reference for Sardinian cooking, Efisio Farris’ great book, “Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey.” If you’re down in Houston or Dallas definitely go to his restaurants, Arcodoro and Pomodoro, where you can get this dish and dozens of other great Sardinian specialties. Efisio and his wife Lori are the folks who send us all that super good Sardinian stuff we get—the fregola and malareddus pastas, really good olive oils, corbezzelo honey, etc. Anyways, I looked up the dish in Efisio’s book and got a bit of background, followed that up with a few conversations on line with Lori, and then a bit more research from other books and a few friends and . . . although I need to really go to Sardinia to see and eat this stuff in its proper home environment, in the moment I’ve gotten a bit of a sense of it and figured I could share it here—no reason everyone else has to wait to start enjoying it while I get my travel act together to get to Sardinia.

While here in Ann Arbor bottarga is about as totally exotic as one could get, in Sardinia, Lori Farris told me, “everyone has ajar of it in their refrigerator.” Which makes me realize that I should back up slightly and tell you what this stuff actually is. Bottarga is basically, dried, pressed tuna roe. Could also be made from mullet but right now what we’ve got is tuna. In it’s straight up form it’s the whole roe sack—small really, I’ve seen them anywhere from like three to six inches long and maybe a couple inches across. If you’ve seen shad roe it’s akin to that I suppose visually. You cut off thin slices and eat it as antipasto, much as you would bits of prosciutto di Parma or Iberico ham. It’s also eaten n the southern side of the Mediterranean—Majid Mahjoub told me that it’s typically eaten on appetizer plate with almonds (both fresh raw and dry roasted), tuna, preserved vegetables, ricotta, hard boiled eggs, preserved lemons, figs, etc. I’ve been told actually that bottarga (or bottargue in French) is the “caviar of the Tunisian Jews,” so I’m sure it’ll come up more often in the future as we continue to explore the foods and culture of Tunisia.

While this pasta dish is so simple it’s almost silly, curing the actual bottarga takes a bit more skill. The roe sack has to be very carefully extracted from the fresh fish, then salted and dried to preserve it properly. We have the bottarga in the Deli right now in the easier to use grated-and-sold-in-the-jar-form, though the more I’m getting into the more I’m getting ready to have us try to stock in the whole roe sack—a tad harder to sell and handle but . .. but good. Anyways, whether you have it grated in advance or shave it off the whole cured roe sack at home it’s pretty powerfully tasty stuff.

I’m sure pasta with bottarga isn’t for everyone, but anyone who’s into full flavored slightly strange to the average American palate things like anchovies or wild mushrooms will probably like it. It’s not like it’s really all that “strong” or anything . .. . it’s just got that sort of big league bit of flavor that probably won’t sit well with everyone but . . . that’s probably true for a lot of what we serve and sell. To me it’s got a really compelling, slightly exotic in that I’m not from Sardinia sort of flavor . . . . earthy, slightly salty, and someone will probably say sexy so I’ll beat them to it by saying it myself. In the jar in the fridge bottarga keeps fine pretty much forever so it’s an easy thing to have on hand to spice up all sorts of dishes. If I have my notes right, Nancy Harmon Jenkins called it “caviar for pasta lovers.” And a little bit goes a long way—as Vanessa Sly said very astutely, bottarga brings, “A great amount of flavor per square inch.” When he was up here last year Efisio was talking to me about the bottarga . . . “When I take a bit it really reminds me of the ocean, of Sardinia.” This time of year when there’s not a whole lot of sun showing up around there parts and laying on the beach seems very far away. I don’t know if there’s any vitamin D in tuna roe but I’ll take all the help I can get!

I’ve come across any number of variations on the dish, but basically it’s garlic, olive oil, pasta, bottarga, red pepper flakes, flat leaf parsley. Like everything we cook here (or really anyone cooks anywhere) the quality of what goes into it is going to have a radical impact on the flavor of the finished dish. I’ve been using the sun-dried garlic from the Mahjoubs which is pretty amazing, the newly arrived Primo Grano Rustichella chitarra for the pasta (more on this below), and the Montalbo olive oil from Efisio from Sardinia. Because I’m totally biased towards arugula I used that instead of parsley but you could use whatever you like of course.

The whole thing is happily extremely simple. A bit of the olive oil goes into a warm but not super hot sauté pan. Add a bit of the sun dried garlic. I’m not the hugest garlic eater so I don’t put a lot in but you can add as much as you like. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water. I’ve been cooking it increasingly al dente and liking it all the more for that. When the pasta is a minute or so away from being done add a teaspoon or so per person of ground bottarga to the warm oil. You don’t want to really cook the bottarga—just heat it and infuse its flavor into the olive oil.

As soon as the pasta is done (very al dente), add it to the garlic and oil in the sauté pan right away. Add another teaspoonful of bottarga per person and your chopped arugula or parsley and a good dose of Marash pepper flakes (terrific red pepper from Turkey) and a bit more of the olive oil. Toss well so it’s really hot but don’t cook too long. Serve as is, maybe with a bit of olive oil drizzled over top. People can add more bottarga at the table too of course. That’s it. Simple, simple. The kind of thing that takes fifteen minutes to make, tastes great and is good for you.

Lori Farris told me that this dish is basically “the macaroni and cheese of Sardinia,” which I think puts it in context, and helps explain why it’s now on my list of easy to make after a long day at work types of dishes. It also explains why there are dozens of variations out there. Efisio has one where he adds fresh, ricotta, which makes the dish much richer but still very good. You can also add a bit of roasted red pepper. Many people use half butter, half olive oil. You get the idea though – you can riff off it any way you like. I’m sure every Sardinian household probably had its own version of the dish, and I’m sure every Sardinian kid is probably loyal to the way he or she grew up eating it.

By the way, this same sauce—good olive oil, the sun dried garlic, chopped flat leaf parsley or arugula, dried Marash red pepper flakes and a bunch of bottarga added right at the end would be a great way to deglaze a pan after you cook up some fresh fish. In fact I think I’m going to try it tomorrow night with some fresh tuna or mackerel.

2. Montalbo Olive Oil from the Eastern Side of Sardinia

So speaking of that Sardinian oil, here it is. It really is very, very good. Like the pasta with bottarga I hadn’t really thought much about it of late but coincidentally the Deli had it out on sample while I was thinking about making this dish. And the oil tasted so good that I bought a bottle to take home. It really is great and it’s perfect (of course) for this pasta dish. So much so that I’ve been using it a LOT and I’m actually about ready to go back to buy another bottle.

A lot of the really good oils from the Southern Hemisphere and California have been getting well deserved attention of late. But there are parts of the Mediterranean—like Sardinia—that also make pretty darned delicious oil but still are almost unknown outside their home regions. The oil is made from two varietals native unique to Sardinia—Bosana and Semidana olives. Although the fruit isn’t formally certified organic, no sprays are used on the trees. The olives are handpicked, then pressed within 24 hours yielding an oil with a very big aroma, a touch of positive bitterness, a bit of the flavor of artichoke, a very nice pepperiness. The pizzica (or pepperiness) is more of the “red pepper” style you’d taste typically in the oils of Puglia than the “black pepper” you’d get with Tuscan oils. There’s something that I’m really liking about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s just sort of really nicely balanced I guess in a way that makes me want to go back and eat more and more it. Honestly, just on apiece of toast it’s pretty terrific. It has a nice sweetness that pulls the flavors together, and I think it’s a bit nutty as well. Great for salads, grilled meats, and full flavored fish like tuna, swordfish and mackerel. And, of course, pasta with bottarga!

3. Sun Dried Garlic from Tunisia

I guess I might as well make my way through this whole dish, so let’s go from oil on to the garlic. If you haven’t tried this stuff . . . you should. Even I, who really eats very little garlic, thinks it’s pretty amazing. And the people who love garlic . . . this will be like caviar for them. It’s organic garlic grown on the Mahjoub’s farm, dried for days in the sun, then peeled, lightly crushed and bottled. It takes a100 kilos of garlic to make 50 kilos of the sun dried. As with all the Mahjoub’s stuff, it’s packed into their own extra virgin olive oil, which only enhances the flavors of the finished product (nearly all comparable items are packed into lower grade olive oil). I’m sure you could make your own but since it’s the middle of March in seemingly sun short Michigan . . . I’ll go with what we’re getting from Tunisia.

There’s not much I can tell you about what to do with this stuff that you wont’ think of on your own. Spread it on toast, toss with pasta, add to sauces . . . I mean really any way you use garlic. Majid likes to: spread it:

“- with harissa on hot grilled meat & lamb chop !
– on hot grilled fish with olive oil.
– on any casse-croûte!”

The latter is the French term for a little snacky-sandwich type things. Speaking of French speakers Sarah Mays from the Deli says “It makes an awesome garlic bread!”

I actually like it a lot because it doesn’t have the sharpness of fresh garlic. Jenny Tubbs is a big promoter—“I always have a jar in my refrigerator. It’s really delicious and sweet.” The latter comes from the week or so long sun drying which mellows it and make it both soft of flavor and texture. A teeny bit goes a long way. And if you want a big garlic bang you can get that too. This is way too obscure an analogy to use for most anyone else to understand but it’s basically to garlic what the Sicilian estratto (sun dried tomato paste) is to tomatoes. A spoonful added to a sauce adds enormous depth, character and complexity—one of those things like anchovies or porcini powder that you can put into any number of dishes without anyone being able to figure out totally what’s in there, they add a on of flavor.

(We’re actually out of stock at the Deli on the garlic but . . . more will be in soon and I’m confident you can remember this so . . . I’ve left it in anyways.!)

4. Primo Grano Pasta from the Abruzzo

5. Pizzuta Almonds from Sicily

I’ve kind of always hated the taste of almond extract. When I tried these almonds for the first time it came immediately clear to me why—the pizzutas are the flavor that almond extract is supposed to supplant. But it fails because like so many faux foods, the extract just doesn’t quite “get it.” I think these do. If you like almonds at all it’s worth tasting these. They’re more intense, more almondy, more exotic than any other almond I’ve ever eaten.

It was sitting with Francesco Padova and Frank (Carollo, managing partner from the Bakehouse whose father’s family, coincidentally came here from Sicily two generations back) that I finally got clear on some of the basics of the almond world and what makes one different than the next. Francesco would know. His family, he told me, “. . . has been in the food for . . . forever.” In a nutshell (sorry, couldn’t resist), the story is that while most all California almonds are soft-shelled and fair bit of European production are semi-hard shelled, the best tasting, most intensely flavored almonds are more often than not of the hard shell varieties. And that there are very few areas in which these difficult to grow, but very tasty, hard shelled almonds can still be had, but one of them is the area in which Francesco’s family’s farm is to be found, the eastern part of Sicily.

“In our area,” Francesco told me, “80% of product is still the hard shell.” “The difference is a ‘natural packaging,’” Francesco put forward with a smile. “The more impenetrable is the shell, the more protected is the seed,” he said. “Usually the shell determines the yield. The harder the shell the lower the yield. But also the higher the flavor.” How big is the yield gap? Big. “In California it is about 60 percent. On Sicily, the yield is 18 to 22.” That got my attention—1/3 the yield starts to make sense why the cost is so much higher. “The content of essential oils is different too,” he went on. “The softer the shell, the lower the oils. But oils bring flavor. So for baking when the oil is lower you get a less flaky pastry.” This all makes perfect sense now that Francesco has told me; but not being an almond aficionado I just really hadn’t given it much thought up until now.

The jewel in the Padova family’s almond crown is the varietal known as the pizzuta. “It’s the signature of my family’s district,” Francesco said with obvious pride. “It’s a very delicate tree. It’s afraid of cold so it grows naturally near to the coast. You will never find the pizzuta tree far from the sea. It’s the most noble almond, the richest in vitamins and essential oils and the flavor is milky.” All this was born out in tasting. The almonds really are exceptional. I will pretty safely say that the flavor is inversely related to the yields; while the latter are three times higher in California, the flavor of the pizzutas from Sicily is a solid three times more interesting. Four days of sun drying (in the shell) intensifies their flavor and reduces their weight further still.

Tasting the Padova family’s Pizzutas gave me a whole new avenue of interest into almonds. Like I said, it made me realize what the people who make commercial almond extract were going after when they “invented” it; it’s an effort to replicate the unique, almost bitter and not quite sweet subtleties of these sorts of old-style hard-shelled almonds. And ironically, I can see that all the flavor components that I don’t like about almond extract are actually present in the pizzuta as well, but here they’re outstanding, instead of off-putting. In the Pizzuta, the flavors are simply softer, more sensual, more rounded, more real, sort of . . . mellifluous and harmonious.

Down the road, I’m sure we’ll be working on some special Sicilian almond pastries out at the Bakehouse but in the moment the main thing is that we’ve got these almonds on hand so that you can have them in hand for your own eating, baking, salads, and sauces. They’re great to put out with a bit of cheese, some dried fruit . . . . good winter snacking I think. And while it’s safe to say that a small bowl of almonds isn’t going to alter the balance of the universe, nor fix up the economy they are really quite darned delicious, a gift of great culinary value to anyone in your life who’s kind of nuts over nuts in particular, traditional foods and great, unique, authentic flavors.

5 Other Things to Know About Our Food

1. Well . .. it’s that time . .. the spring holiday season . . . somehow, with all due respect, I have images of bunnies making their way across the dessert eating matzo (no chocolate dipping – it would have melted in about a minute). OK, I’m strange. My fantasies aside, all the Easter and Passover stuff is coming out . . . . Kulich, really great looking ZZang bar 4-packs, and amazing chocolate (faux-berge – get it) eggs from Chocolate Moderne and more for Easter. The classic gefilte fish, macaroons, potato kugel (my favorite), charoset, sponge cake, matzo meal mandelbread and much more for Passover. Big new debut for this year’s Passover is the lemon sponge cake—looks beautiful with the egg white meringue on the outside and tastes great too. Good for most gluten sensitive folks as well.

2. The Little Napoleons at the Creamery last week were probably the best I remember them being. Really delicious with a slightly soft just inside the rind bit creaminess . . . very nice flavor, great finish. Also the Little Dragons (fresh, lightly pressed goat cheese coated in fresh tarragon) are back out too and also excellent.

3. the Rwanda coffee (of the month) has also been tasting very good. Particularly so in a pourover if you have the chance to try it that way at the Deli or the Coffee Company.

4. Not too early to be talking up special cakes for Graduations, spring weddings, etc. Weekends in the spring do get booked and the cakes are looking and tasting better than ever!! Check out the Bakehouse website to see some of the latest!

5. if you haven’t yet tried any of the grass fed beef that’s been on the roadhouse menu of late . . . it’s very definitely worth getting over there for. Alex has been working hard on all the things that go into raising good beef on grass and the results show in the flavor. This is just the beginning of a lot more work to come but all the work Alex has invested is already coming through. Alex, Kieron and crew have been doing all sorts of good things with the beef, all the way through from grind for burgers and really amazingly good Salisbury steak, to a series of very good steak specials, etc. Try a 24-7 (hook’s 7 year Wisconsin cheddar and Nueske’s 24 hour smoked applewood bacon) or a pimento cheese burger with the grass feed beef!