Saturday, September 30, 2006


This late summer academics were seen huddling together in the corridors of the Amsterdam University, exchanging small jars with orange coloured powdery contents. As these secretive meetings took place in the humanities department, no one thought anything of it. And rightly so, as this was all about bottarga.
Bottarga is salted, pressed, dried roe of gray mullet (muggine) or tuna fish (tonno), a mediterranean delicacy, claimed by every region as its own and given a fancy name: Sardinian caviar, Sicilian caviar, Egyptian caviar. But as writes: bottarga is bottarga is bottarga. It comes vacuum-packed in a piece or grated in jars and is used in pasta sauces (spaggheti alla bottarga), as an appetizer (with lemon juice on a piece of bread) and can often replace dried anchovy.

Two jars of grated bottarga di muggine are in my cupboard now and one is half empty already. Today, as you'll have concluded by now, bottarga is not easy to come by if you don't have friends in Sardinian places. This must have been different in the seventeenth century. I quote from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 5 June 1661:

'So home Sir William and I, and it being very hot weather I took my flageolette and played upon the leads in the garden, where Sir W. Pen came out in his shirt into his leads, and there we staid talking and singing, and drinking great drafts of claret, and eating botargo and bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine; and so to bed, very near fuddled.'
The glossary explains that 'botargo was chiefly used to promote drinking by causing thirst'. In the case of mr. Pepys, I get the impression he ate the salty substance with bread and butter to soften the effect of the alcohol, though with limited success. From the same glossary I learned that bottarga is also mentioned in the Sailor's Word-Book by Admiral W.H. Smyth (1867, reissued in 2005), who was of the opinion that 'the best kind comes from Tunis'.
Allow me one more digression before I give you my bottarga recipe. Samuel Pepys' drinking mate was none other than Admiral William Penn, who fought against us Dutch in the beginning of what I learned at school to be the Second English War - a war we won, but lost. See, if this sounds intriguing, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). International raison d'état, mercantilism and maritime strife by Gijs Rommelse (Verloren 2006), about whom I read today in NRC Handelsblad.

Sicilian rice salad
Boil 300 gr rice and let it cool. Add a royal amount of chopped flat-leaf parsley, at least 2 gloves of garlic (chopped), the juice of 1 lemon, 3 heaped spoons of grated bottarga and ample olive oil. Mix well and put in the fridge for about an hour. Goes well with char-grilled meats, but not with claret.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Forever the twain shall meet

In my garden I grow the usual suspects, like spinach, leek, onions, strawberries, lettuce and kale. I have also, from the very beginning, fearlessly and not always successfully, tried my hand at 'city-people-greens', like rocket and radicchio, 'forgotten vegetables' like parsnip and cavolo nero, and exotic strangers, such as Thai basil and mustard (gai choy or brassica juncea). Bemused fellow gardeners (elderly males, mostly) shake their heads over such nonsense and refuse to try the delicacies I offer them. Now that I have huge plants of amaranth to show (this picture was taken in early summer), big round yellow beetroot, and a good harvest of buggenummer muuskes ('mice from Buggenum', an old potato variety, a kind of ratte), they simply ignore these strange crops and compliment me on my endive and carrots.
Growing exotic greens is one thing, of course, and knowing what to do with them once harvested, yet another. I solely depend on the information on the packets, which tell me that amaranth and mustard can be prepared like spinach. Goodbye to exotics, then.
Spouse, who doesn't believe that 'East is east and west is west', made a wonderful hotchpotch that combined Dutch endive with its oriental and South-American counterparts. The result was sumptuous, tangy and fresh. We ate it with leg of guinee fowl. Fried bacon or sausage are the usual companions to the traditional variety.

Endive hotchpotch with a twist
For a hotchpotch of uncooked greens one needs (per person) approximately 300 gr potatoes, 125 gr greens and a lump of butter (preferably drippings, depending on the meat you serve with the hotchpotch). Some add milk, we don't.
Boil the potatoes with a substantial pinch of sellery salt. Meanwhile, cut endive, amaranth and mustard (2:1:1) into ribbons, not too small. Strain the potatoes but keep the water. Mash the potatoes (but not thoroughly), adding the water, and butter or drippings to make it smooth. Add the greens and heat carefully (the greens should become hot, not cooked). To taste: sea salt, freshly ground white pepper, white wine vinegar.

If you're interested in the crops I mentioned: some of the exotic ones I bought are from Botanical Interests, while others, especially the forgotten vegetables and potatoes, I got from Vreeken's Zaden.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Minestrone for an upset tummy

What to cook when your better half is ill and can't bear the thought of eating or drinking anything at all and you're feeling slightly under the wheater yourself? Not cooking is not an option, of course. Vitamins are needed, and so are liquids, but orange juice, for example, proved to be a bad idea. Among the more substantial items such as rice, potatoes, pasta, bread and toast (for one musn't become too weak) only the latter (and that in the tiniest bits), didn't make her feel worse.
It was a week of trial and error. It all took a turn for the better once I removed, in a Montignacish sort of way, the carbohydrates from our dinner and thought of the old remedies: broth (why, of course!), camomile tea (to be avoided when in a healthy condition), coke (kills everything).
Though I'm not 'into Jamie', I found one of his broadcasts (Oliver's Twist) quite inspiring. It was a spring item and he was happily chopping about making a minestrone for his daughter Poppy. To my astonishment he served the mouthwatering, all-vegetable, soup with a handful of parmesan cheese and a royal helping of pesto. A sure way to ban out all subtilities, wouldn't you say?
I'll give you my upset-tummy-proof late summer variety. If there is no upset tummy around add onion, garlic and a rinse of parmesan or a few dices of bacon (or better still: pancetta).

Minestrone for an upset tummy
Chop all kinds of vegetables into small parts (I used zucchini, leek, fennel, parsnip, beans, carrot, bell pepper, one red pepper without seed and flat-leaf parsley) and fry them in a bit of olive oil. Don't be afraid to make too much as you can freeze the leftovers. Start with those vegetables that take longer. Add a tin of peeled tomatoes and half a liter (well, that depends on how much you're making and how fluid you want it to be) of chicken or vegetable stock. Try not to overcook. Put two thirds in a blender to make a smooth substance. Serve hot.