Preserving food is the national sport of Italian cooks.
For millennia our peninsula was mostly populated by geographically isolated and politically defined communities whose survival depended on harnessing available raw ingredients and the local environment into long lasting provisions. As roads were built and borders became permeable, foods traveled more easily but preserving traditions stayed.
To understand how large preserved foods still loom in the Italian kitchen, ask yourself if you’ve ever been in an Italian household whose pantry didn’t have at least two cans of peeled tomatoes, likely a jar of capers, a bundle of prosciutto, surely more than one fruit jam, and on and on.
Fish is no exception. One would think that a country that ranks 72nd in the world in surface area but 28th in length of coastline would have endless access to fresh fish. But fishing communities at the whims of the sea had no choice but to create food reserves given the short shelf life of seafood.
Today, whether landlocked or bordered by water, all Italian regional cuisines use the powerful combination of sea, sun and salt to create flavors worth detours.
Fish is mostly conserved in oil or salt, sometimes air-dried and occasionally packed in water. It can be the focal ingredient of a meal, a smattering of boldness on a salad, the protagonist of a pasta sauce, or the base of flavor that delivers rich umami to a dish.
I host conserved fish in a dedicated shelf in the pantry and a box in the refrigerator. In my periodic table of cooking, I divide it in tiers: necessary, nice-to-have and treats.
I always have anchovies, tuna and bottarga, and by always I mean they’re an entry in my pre-made shopping list, right after produce and before dairy.
My nice-to-haves are sardines and mackerel — sgombro in Italian. I have an ongoing love affair with cod — merluzzo in Italian. It can be conserves in oil, under salt — baccalà — or air dried — stoccafisso.
Some of my favorite treats involve conserved fish. Peppers stuffed with anchovy or tuna, salsiccia di sgombro — mackerel sausage and lattume — spreadable milt aren’t easy to come by, but worth the wait and price.
A warm milk roll with butter and anchovies was part of the breakfast rotation in my childhood. We’d dip it in caffelatte, a taste contraposition that influenced how I taste food to this day. But the most interesting side of anchovies is their role as a flavor builder in so much Italian cooking. From sauces, to stuffings, roasts and salad dressings, a well placed anchovy can give character to any dish. An anchovy compound butter can turn any skeptic around.
Anchovies are most prized when they come from the Ligurian Sea, particularly from Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre municipalities. Ligurian anchovies are packed in salt and bear the IGP — Indicazione Geografica Protetta — seal from the Ministry of Agriculture, a safeguard for both product quality and the economic welfare of small communities. Cetara, on the Amalfi Coast, is the other anchovy capital, best known for colatura, a by-product of the salting process. Last but not least, anchovy paste deserves a shout-out. It is both a great spread and a quick cheat to give a lackluster dish some shine.
Most tuna is packed in Portugal, but there are some hyperlocal productions from Sicily whose price tag can make them occasional treats. Whatever your budget, tuna not only makes a great salad but has a whole array of possibilities as an ingredient, in a tomato sugo for pasta, as a sauce for poached meat, atop day old bread. And if you have never tried it with artichokes, you are missing out.
Fillets — tranci in Italian — are the most common form of canned tuna. But one can get adventurous. Ventresca is the belly, richer in fat and more delicate in flavor. It is best when minimally changed. I like to sprinkle lemon and red chili flakes on it. Tarantello is the abdominal muscle, a rare cut whose mouthfeel is between the fillets and the belly. The most humble tuna conserve of all and by far my favorite, is buzzonaglia. Also known as busonaglia or busonaccia, it is made with the flesh stuck to the central spine and the bits leftover after all the prime cuts have been pared. Originally a nutritious provision for those who couldn’t afford to waste anything, this purple brown mix is best used for cooking and delivers intense taste sensations.
Whole, unblemished, un-torn fish roe sacs are cured in salt, pressed and air-dried into bottarga, a product that has the status of truffles and traditional balsamic vinegar in Italian gastronomy. Sardinian mullet bottarga is the better known, but bottarga made from tuna is the choice for Sicilians. I have also tried amberjack bottarga and have home-cured some tiny roe sacs from herrings.
A limited quantity of bottarga from local mullets is made in the Tuscan town of Orbetello. That’s where I first met it. I was eight and remember my mother carefully selecting it at the local fish monger’s. It looked like an upside down misshapen heart. We grated it over spaghetti that night and I remember being vaguely resented at my mother for having robbed me of eight years of bottarga.
Start with a small jar of pre-grated bottarga and once you’re converted, graduate to whole lobes. Pasta is a great vehicle for bottarga, but it also pairs well with a number of vegetables, with fresh cheeses, and even with some delicate meats like veal or pork tenderloin.
This small fish are the very definition of nutritious and delicious. They are high in calcium and all good fats and they are a very underrated snack.
Conserved in oil, they shine on bread and butter or with a semi-hard pecorino. Or rinse off the oil, season them with fresh parsley, chili flakes and thin slices of shallot, sprinkle with lemon and douse in fresh olive oil.
A sgombro is that rare fish that finds its sublimation when preserved in oil. The texture of raw mackerel can be stringy even if not over cooked. The surface of its skin is just this side of slimy. But when packed in good olive oil, mackerel becomes a gem at the intersection of tuna and cod. Its flesh softens and his metallic flavor sweetens.
My friend Donatella’s mother would mash it with poached potato and garlic. My own mother used it to fill crunchy rolls slathered in mayonnaise, add a tomato slice and call it our beach lunch. Sprinkle it with lemon, round it up with a salad and there’s a 10 minute dinner.
When jarred in oil, cod is one of the ingredients that most spark my imagination. Try it on tagliolini with lemon, mint and pistachios. Make a cold rice salad of cod, capers and cherry tomatoes. Drain, batter and deep fry it. Toss it with chilled romaine, paper thin shallots, roasted winter squash and toasted hazelnuts. The year-round possibilities are endless.
Salt cod is baccalà. I could write pages on it, in fact I have. It is a unique eating experience that does not compare with fresh cod. We Italians so love our baccalà that we trail just behind Brazil and Portugal in consumption. Cod is fished and salted all over the northern Atlantic and in parts of the Pacific, but for the best varieties look to Norway and Iceland. Every Italian region, town, home has its own favorite recipes, from potatoes to mushrooms, milk to tomatoes, raisins to capers, there are entire books dedicated to preparing baccalà. Loins are considered the choice cuts, though I have a weakness for necks. One word of culinary advise: baccalà must be desalted very well. Soak it three to four days with four changes of water through each day. To test, insert a wooden skewer to the center and leave it there for ten to fifteen seconds. Extract and lick: it should have but the faintest salinity.
Stoccafisso is air dried cod. It is as popular in Italy as salt cod and they’re interchangeable in most recipes. Air dried cod however maintains a slightly softer flesh and a blander taste. If you are ever cooking from a Venetian book, remember that the people of Veneto like to use stoccafisso but call it baccalà.
Fish stuffed peppers
Stuffing small peppers with preserved fish and jarring them in oil is a tradition found in Calabria and Sicily. The Calabrians choose small, round, shiny red peppers and fill them with tuna. The variety is moderately spicy when ripe and is known as cherry pepper, but if consumed too young it is like a tenfold jalapeño and becomes affectionally known as Satan’s kiss. Sicilians use anchovies to fill bright red long heaty peppers called cornetti. Both versions poach the peppers in vinegar first and sometimes include various combinations of capers, dried oregano and olives.
This Sicilian food craft brings mackerel to yet another level. Seasoned with wild herbs, it is a rare find, even in Italy. Should you come across it, buy it, ask for a fork and several napkins. Sit down in the first viable corner, unscrew that jar and revel in marvel.
This is another rare delicacy whose starting point can be thought of as male bottarga. Lattume is made with sacs of a boy fish genetic material. They have to be shiningly fresh when prepared. Poached in water and vinegar first, then packed in oil, the sacs become a light spreadable paste with a taste closer to foie gras than fish. It is always a challenge to describe them in polite company without triggering skittishness, so my uncle Dondo, who introduced me to this marvel, simply puts it out on the table. By the time one eats it, it’s too late to ever do without it.
Italian delis and specialty food stores alway carry tuna, anchovies both in salt and oil and sardines. They often have ventresca, mackerel and tuna stuffed cherry peppers.
www.gustiamo.com for both mullet and tuna bottarga, salt packed anchovies and Sicilian caught and packed tuna
www.thespanishtable.com for cod in oil
www.buyportuguesefood.com for baccalà
www.formaggiokitchen.com for portuguese tuna, ventresca and sardines
For all other products, join me in Italy in July or October!