Leave it to John T. Edge to celebrate artisans of mullet (the fish, not the haircut). Back in July, Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, penned a piece for the New York Times about a small Cortez, Fla. outfit trying to turn the local mullet harvest into gold by salt-curing the roe in the manner of Italian bottarga. Then, in December, Edge included a salad topped with smoked mullet roe from a Cortez pizzeria in his roundup of the year's best dishes for Garden & Gun magazine. I happen to get down to the area near Cortez once a year or so, and I'm always on the lookout for local food finds. This year I had to put mullet roe on my list.
Mullet is typically found at fish markets along the Gulf Coast, mainly in the form of smoked mullet dip heavy on the cream cheese and served with saltines. In the pecking order of Gulf fish deliciousness, mullet falls a few notches above cellar dwellers like ladyfish, but far from the upper echelons where pompano and grouper reign. So finding mullet making the transition to gourmet ingredient brings a smirk to most locals' faces. Mullet? Really?
But Edge's description of the mullet roe-graced Cortez wedge salad at Village Idiot Pizzeria was enticing:
"Take a Caesar salad for a walk down a sandy lane, toward a buttonwood-tree-tangled bay on the Gulf Coast of Florida. By the time you reach the end of the pier, where the mullet are jumping and the codgers are fishing, you'll have a sense of what this salad tastes like."
Who could resist a dish like that? I knew I couldn't.
My wife and I headed to Cortez on a breezy and warm winter afternoon. We drove over the bridge from Bradenton Beach into Cortez and continued through the fishing village to a poorly marked pizzeria in a shabby little strip mall with an ice cream counter and one of those beach junk shops. Village Idiot Pizzeria ain't much to look at. Behind the small counter where you order there's a wood-burning pizza oven that looks like it was cobbled together from the remains of the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. This is where all of the cooking takes place, from the pizzas to the fish in the tacos (mahi mahi on our visit) to the charred romaine for the Cortez wedge salad.
Edge's description was both spot-on and appropriately florid. There's a lot going on in this salad, from the smoke-infused romaine to the garlicky, peppery dressing with a sweet hint of barbecue sauce to crisp and slender sticks of pizza crust as croutons. But it's the thin slices of smoked mullet roe that take the dish over the top. Village Idiot gets the mullet roe from "a guy down the street" who smokes it for them. The burnt orange-hued slices are tender, dissolving in the mouth into a mix of smoke and salt and sea funk. If there's a better use for mullet in all the universe, I'd be surprised.
After we got our smoked mullet roe fix, we headed back across the bridge and to the Sandbar, a restaurant in nearby Anna Maria for the Cortez bottarga mentioned in Edge's New York Times piece. The Anna Maria Fish Company ships the vast majority of its product. I was hoping to meet up with the folks that do the salt curing of the roe. Alas, the holidays got in the way, and I had to settle for buying some packaged bottarga. It comes in vacuum-sealed packs that include whole lobes of the cured roe. Mine was 3.5 ounces for $30. I looked up a few recipes online and settled on a bean and bread salad from the Anna Maria Fish Company website and a few variations on a traditional bottarga pasta recipe I found from Martha Stewart (because when you think mullet, you think Martha, right?).
True to its Italian inspiration, this Cortez bottarga is drier, denser, and saltier than the smoked mullet roe we tried at Village Idiot. Bottarga's texture lends itself to grating. Think crumbly, aged Parmesan and you'll have a good idea of how to put bottarga to work. The aroma before you cut into the lobes of roe is fairly mild, with a fruity, almost pumpkin-y character to match the dark pumpkin color. But once you grate the bottarga and have a taste, you'll get an umami rush of salt and sea. It's not as delicate as caviar, not as creamy as uni, not as assertive as anchovies, but it has elements of each. I think uni is actually its closest cousin, flavor-wise. After I made the bottarga pasta, I scribbled some notes with a terse summary: "insanely good and addictively salty."
Bottarga stays good for quite a while if kept sealed in the fridge, so you won't have to OD on the stuff to use up your purchase. You may not be able to get down to the funky little fishing village of Cortez to experience the magic of mullet roe right by the water, but you can break out some Cortez bottarga whenever you need a quick hit of the Florida coast.
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