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Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing Meat, Fish, & Game

Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing Meat, Fish, & Game

By A D Livingston

Published 2010

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Noshing Fare for the Pharaohs

Old salts in Florida and along the Atlantic Coast will be surprised to learn that salt-dried mullet roe was enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians. Ready-made Batarekh is still marketed in Egypt, and possibly in some Paris outlets, where it is called bout-argue or (I think) botargo. European or Egyptian gourmets might argue for the roe of the gray mullet seined from the Mediterranean, or perhaps caught with a hook baited with cooked macaroni, but the weathered folks along the Outer Banks of North Carolina will tell you that the roe of their coastal mullet is the best in the world—far surpassing the golden berries of even the rare sterlet sturgeon. Old crackers on Florida’s gulf Coast will champion their own mullet, some of which are a little different from those that run the Atlantic Coast. Once I could buy fresh mullet roe and milt from my local fish markets, but in recent years, Japan and Taiwan have hogged the market for the sushi trade. They buy the roe by the ton, salt it, dry it, change the name to karasumi, and sell it back to us at $70 an ounce, or thereabouts. They also make a similar product, tarako, from salt-cured Pacific pollack.

In any case, the roe of cod is also excellent and can be used in this recipe. Menhaden, American shad, hickory shad, mooneye, and other good herring also yield excellent roe. My favorite Batarekh, however, is made from the roe of bluegills, which is readily available to most Americans. Most of the farm ponds in this country are overstocked with bluegills, and these are fat with roe in summer. Catch some and try Batarekh. True, it’s an acquired taste, but before long you’ll crave more—especially if you have been on a no-salt diet.

Start by carefully removing the roe from the fish, being careful not to puncture or divide the two sacs. Wash the sacs and dry them with a paper towel or soft cloth. Place them on a brown grocery bag and sprinkle them heavily with sea salt. (Ordinary table salt can be used, but sea salt has more minerals and more flavor.) Put the bag in a cool place. After about 2 hours, the salt will have drawn some of the moisture out of the roe and the brown bags will be wet in spots. Put the roe sacs on a new brown bag and sprinkle them again with salt. Change the bag after about 3 hours and resalt the roe. Then wait 4 or 5 hours. And so on until the roe is dry and leaves no moisture on the bag, at which time it will be ready to eat. This will take about 3 days, but after the first 8 hours or so the bag won’t have to be changed very often. Small roe won’t take 3 days, however, to dry sufficiently. Be warned that Batarekh smells up the house, so it is best to make it on the screened porch or in a well-ventilated place. After it is cured sufficiently, it can be stored for a while in the refrigerator, but it’s best to wrap each roe sac separately in plastic wrap. For longer storage, dip each roe sac in melted paraffin.

Beginners should eat Batarekh in thin slices with a drop of lemon juice and a thin little cracker or buttered toast. After the first 2 or 3 slices, omit the lemon and cut the slices a little thicker. Being salty, Batarekh goes down nicely with cold beer. Don’t throw out your batch of Batarekh if it doesn’t hit the spot, or if you’ve got squeamish guests scheduled for dinner or cocktails. (As I pointed out in another work, one of my sons won’t touch Batarekh, pharaohs notwithstanding, because, he says, it looks like little mummies.) I like to use grated Batarekh as a seasoning and topping for pastas and salads—and it really kicks up an ordinary supermarket pizza. Just grate some on the pizza atop the regular toppings. (I prefer pizza supreme with a little of everything.) Sprinkle shredded cheese over the Batarekh and broil until the cheese begins to brown around the edges and the pizza is heated through. Have plenty of good red wine at hand if you are feeding bibulous guests.

This pizza is one of my favorite quick foods. The grated Batarekh can, of course, also be used to advantage in pizza made from scratch if you are a purist.

Also, I find that grated Batarekh can really pick up a piece of cheese toast for a quick snack. Here are some other ways to use Batarekh—gourmet fare without the mummy image.