Some recipes are inherited from generations who have cooked long before us. Some are created out of a desire to innovate or push food forward, challenging us to expand our understanding of what food can be. And some come from a desire to recapture an experience remembered from outside our own kitchens and even our own countries.
"One of my favorite memories of my early travels in Italy," he says, "was of having this butter-and-bottarga sandwich at this little enoteca where I was staying. It was just bland white bread, room-temperature butter and sliced salty bottarga. But it was perfect, and that combination always stuck with me."
Back at home, he pondered how he could replicate bottarga for his Cleveland restaurants, The Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat and Trentina. Traditionally, bottarga is made of salted, cured fish roe from gray mullet caught off the southern Italian coast and then thinly sliced like cured meat or grated like cheese. Sawyer considered utilizing roe from nearby lake trout, walleye or smelt until he landed on an even more treasured local gem: the eggs from his own backyard chickens.
"My chickens were so special to me from the beginning," he says, "and we wanted to treat their eggs preciously. So we worked on creating individual egg yolks we could use as a core flavoring ingredient, combining the idea of that salty, briny bottarga with a traditional Japanese cured miso egg."
So Sawyer developed a recipe simple in ingredients but exciting in preparation that packs a lot of flavor in a tiny package.
First, he gently cures egg yolks overnight in salt, then rinses them with vinegar, compresses them and then lets them rest together in the refrigerator until their surface water content just begins to evaporate. They're then gently cold-smoked to impart sweet, funky flavors and left to age for three to four weeks. The resulting yolks are flavored deeply to their cores and firm enough that they can then be grated onto dishes that need a quick, pungent punch of flavor.
"With the egg yolk bottarga, you're adding salt and salinity with a lot of umami in the background," Sawyer says. "It really is like cheating with flavor; the bottarga melts in and intensifies any savory notes in the dish, making every bite on the plate more tasty."
Sawyer now cures and smokes around eight yolks weekly, using them all over his kitchens. Here's a few ways he suggests you try them in yours.
Soft Scrambled Egg Garnish
"The most classic and cohesive way to use this is where you would traditionally use cured tuna or mullet roe," Sawyer says. In Sicily, bottarga is traditionally grated as a garnish atop soft scrambled eggs or sliced thinly on a simple sandwich with only bread and butter. "Bottarga is really about a celebration of the roe. With ours, it's the egg. It makes crunchy, bland toast a celebration."
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A Pasta Condiment
"As a condiment, it's paramount," he claims. He uses his bottarga as a garnish for many fresh pasta plates but encourages it especially on those with an egg element to tie together how versatile one ingredient can be. But for simple pastas, like cacio e pepe or linguini with clams, the bottarga adds an unexpected depth that helps punch up the modest, humble ingredients with even more umami.
The key to using bottarga, according to Sawyer, is to think of it as a core flavoring and salting ingredient that shines in plates that are otherwise rather basic. In salads, think thinly sliced raw fennel, a few fennel seeds, some sections of grapefruit or tart orange, and a little extra-virgin olive oil, with the bottarga grated over top like cheese. Or amp up the traditionally French combo of radishes and butter by adding a little mandolined bottarga, bringing some salt and funk to an otherwise peppery, creamy combo.
"With tartare, you're taking something that's raw, so there's inherently no umami in it until you add something like Worcestershire. Tartare is delicious, because of the few but flavorful things you add to it," he says. Instead of adding a hard or slightly cooked egg on top of your tartare, incorporate the bottarga. "You're taking something from your pantry and making it that much easier to execute and that much more delicious."
Get Cheeky with It
This recipe may be dead cheap to make, but Sawyer likes to "get cheeky with it," treating it like he would the finest of caviars. For an impressive app, garnish the bottarga with chives, raw onion and horseradish, and let guests go at it with thin slices of crusty bread.
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