I’ve been subscribed to Canal House Cooks Lunch for a while now, and (along with the rest of the blogosphere) have been tremendously enjoying the daily dose of inspiration their photos provide. I recently shared this with my mom, and when a new post shows up in my reader, it makes me smile to think that she’ll see it too. It feels as if we’re communicating, the two of us, via these photos of duck confit and pasta and peas. A few weeks ago, they mentioned a piece of boutargue* they had received as a gift, and a few days later it arrived on my doorstep, courtesy of my mother.
My parents were both born in Tunisia, and it played a prominent role in my childhood, from my mother’s paintings to my father’s love of palm trees (he had the palm tree in our front yard in Jerusalem brought in with a crane). It stars in both of my grandmothers’ stories; for my maternal grandmother it was the large home she shared with her husband’s family- bustling and busy and warm, and so different from her own solitary childhood. For my paternal grandmother, it was stories of war and air-raid sirens, and rushing to shelters clutching her baby brother’s hand. It is also the origin of heirloom pieces of jewelry she handed down to my cousin Clara and I.
Perhaps most of all, Tunisia was a part of my grandfather. He was constantly talking, animated, his hands in motion, and it was usually about Tunisia. He would find long lost relatives, people he could trace back to Tunisia- in the streets of Jerusalem, in his neighborhood of Creteil, at airports. At dinner, he would tell us excitedly about so-and-so, whose father used to have coffee with his father at the café on Rue des Belges, or whose family used to vacation alongside his at l’aeroport. For my grandfather, Tunisia lurked around every corner; it was in every bowl of couscous, every bar of soap, every celebration.
In our family of introverts, my grandfather was decidedly an extrovert, always reaching out, always talking to people, always introducing himself, his hands on the other person’s arm, his blue eyes bright and youthful. He was interested in hearing where you were from, where your parents were from, and if at all possible, he would trace you back to an ancestor sitting in a sundrenched square in Tunis, or in the bustling markets of Souk-el-Arba.
Before each trip to Israel, my grandfather would drive out to Belleville to buy boutargue. The carefully chosen specimens would be handed over to my grandmother, who would place them in the back room where the packing took place. They would get little labels, like all of the gifts lined up on the bed. In Israel, one of the pieces would make its way to my grandfather’s friend of fifty years, gentle and soft-spoken, with eyes that crinkled at the corners, who kissed my cheeks and called me “ma fille”. My grandfather would spend his days in Israel visiting my father at his office, meeting with friends, chatting his way around the neighborhood. The rest of the time, you could find him seated quietly in my parents’ living room, the morning’s edition of Le Figaro spread out before him, his jacket and hat occupying a neighboring chair. Come sunset, the room would darken and he would fold the paper neatly. “Un petit aperitif?” he would intone in the general direction of my mother- half question, half request- and she would bring him pistachios, a little wedge of boutargue with a knife, and an ice-cold bottle of boukha*. My family brought this trio everywhere, from waiting rooms to cruises and hotels. On Friday night, boutargue made a festive appearance, sliced thinly, often on a fish-shaped platter, sometimes drizzled with olive oil or a bit of lemon juice. The younger generation was hooked too, wedging thinly sliced pieces of boutargue into morsels of warm challah. If we had a new guest at the table, unversed in Judeo-Tunisian ways, my younger brother would pounce on the opportunity to trick them into tasting a piece of boutargue, telling them it was apricot-flavored fruit leather. Their lips would close around the orange sliver- salty, fishy- their eyes opening wide, lips puckering.
With its unabashed fishy flavor, it’s an acquired taste, and one that I’ve never really warmed up to. But often, I’ll reach out for a small slice, slipping it onto my tongue, hoping that this time I’ll like it. After all, it’s not just golden-hued fish roe. For me, it’s Tunisia, my childhood, and countless family gatherings. And now, it’s also my grandfather.
Spaghetti a la Boutargue made an appearance quite regularly in our home. We always had boutargue in the fridge and pasta in the pantry, making it an easy default dinner. It’s an exercise in simplicity: you line the bottom of a bowl with olive oil, add some minced garlic, then add the hot spaghetti, giving it a nice toss in the garlicky oil. Grate some boutargue over the bowl, and you’re done. This version dresses things up a bit, warming the oil and garlic, adding pan-fried breadcrumbs for an extra bit of crunch, and parsley for a welcome pop of color. Even so, it’s ready in less than 20 minutes. Reason enough to crack open that bottle of boukha.
Spaghetti a la Boutargue
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Prep: 20 minutes
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup coarsely ground breadcrumbs (from stale bread ground in a food processor)
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound spaghetti
8 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1/3 cup grated boutargue (about 7 ounces)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped parsley or cilantro
1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil and the butter in a skillet over medium heat until butter foams. Add breadcrumbs, and season with salt and pepper. Cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti, and cook until al dente.
3. Meanwhile, heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, and cook until it begins to turn lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, transfer spaghetti directly from boiling water to skillet. Toss to coat. Add grated boutargue, parsley, breadcrumbs, and toss. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil, and serve.
Boukha: The Tunisian answer to Vodka, distilled from figs. My family prefers this brand. We keep a bottle in the freezer and serve it ice-cold in shot glasses.