I must admit that I am one to succumb to an impulse buy every now and then. Well, actually, almost all my produce shopping at the market is an impulse, except for when I actually plan for a recipe and need certain ingredients. Whatever looks good or cheap or particularly interesting is what ends up in my basket – perhaps it’s a box of figs, jammy, over ripe and going for next to nothing or a bunch of herbs that I don’t normally see, like wild fennel tops that you can smell from a few stalls away.
This time it happened to be whole bonito. Glistening in their dress of silver stripes like shiny armour, their bright eyes so clear and fresh they looked like they might wink at you – I couldn’t resist, also because they were in season and dead cheap. I bought one and brought it home. It smelled like salty waves from the sea.
I didn’t have a particular dish in mind at first, that’s the problem with impulse buying. The ideas come after. I knew Marco, my husband, would have a thing or two he would want to do with it. I knew he’d think of something that brought back a little nostalgia of home. For me, bonito, or palamita means the Tuscan coast – rocky, with the hazy outline of some little islands here and there and umbrella pines that grow leaning with the wind. It’s a reminder of the time we always spend here at the family beach house and the visits to places like the seaside village of San Vincenzo, where they celebrate bonito in an annual food festival, la festa della palamita.
Bonito is a much-appreciated fish in the area with flesh rather similar to tuna, but is considerably cheaper. It’s related to the mackerel, which, along with other oily fish like sardines, are known collectively as pesce azzuro in italian – they are not only delicious but good for you.
We decided to do a simple preparation for bonito, but one that is excellent for keeping on hand and making a variety of other things with. Palamita sott’olio. It’s essentially tinned tuna but better. More elegant, more tender and flavourful. The fish is simply chopped into steaks and boiled in a 20% salt solution. The bones are removed and the chunks of flesh are bottled with some bay leaves and pepper for flavour, then topped up with oil to preserve it. It’s better after it’s had a few weeks to settle, but you may not be able to resist that long.
It makes a wonderfully quick dinner as it’s all ready to go. My favourite way to have this is in a simple, impromptu salad of white cannellini beans and thinly sliced raw red onion, dressed in some red wine vinegar and olive oil. But it’s great crumbled into some sauce made of fresh tomatoes and basil for pasta or on a panino with boiled eggs and parsley.
Palamita sott’olio Bonito preserved in oil
This recipe is adapted from Zuppe e Stornelli, a book of the cuisine of Elba Island, part of Tuscany’s archipelago. You could also add some slices of fresh chilli if you like it a little hot.
- 1 kg bonito, interior cleaned
- vinegar (such as white wine vinegar or distilled vinegar)
- 600 grams of rock salt
- vegetable oil to cover
- 3-4 dried bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon whole dried black peppercorns
Remove the head and tail of the bonito and chop into thick steaks, about 5-6cm thick, bone and skin in tact. Rinse the fish with vinegar and then rinse with water. Place the steaks in a bowl of cold water for 2-3 hours, renewing the water once or twice.
Place 3 litres of water in a large saucepan with the salt and bring to a simmer. Drain the fish and add to the saucepan and cook, covered, for about 1 1/2-2 hours.
When cooked through, drain and pat the bonito steaks dry. When cool enough to handle, break apart the bonito with fingers into a few smaller sections, removing the central bone and skin as you go. Wrap the fish pieces in a clean tea towel (or in layers of paper towel) to drain it further and chill in the fridge for several hours.
Place the chilled bonito in jars (this amount needed 2 jars; the one pictured here is a lovely Weck canning jar of 19.6 oz or 1/2 litre volume capacity) with some peppercorn and bay leaves. Cover with oil, making sure all the fish is entirely covered. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark place (I keep mine in the fridge). This is best about a month after bottling. If you can wait that long.
Just in case you’re wondering, these photographs of this beautiful seaside were taken at Argentario in the southernmost part of Tuscany. It looks out over the island of Giglio and is a fair way further south than Elba. A gorgeous part of the world.