Anchovy Love

Autumn, Savory Recipes • 24 Oct 2008

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, salty anchovies lined up in tins, these are a few of my favorite things.

Yet, as a child I hated anchovies. Ok, hate is not a strong enough word. I despised anchovies. I happened to be one of those rare (read: bizarre) children who shunned sweets in exchange for the healthy and the salty. I had no business with apple sauce, cupcakes, and other childhood favorites; I would have much rather feasted on a bright bowl of beets and an earthy side of wilted spinach. As I got older and entered my inevitable junk food phase, I preferred the crunchy, salt coated potato chip to the gooey, saccharine chocolate chip cookie.

My mom always loved salt and sweet equally and although my dad claimed to have no propensity towards eating sugar, he would sneak off with a dozen of my mom’s homemade cookies and return with a clean plate. I, however, loved everything and anything salty: everything except the anchovy. I found the tiny fish mysterious and offensive- a dubious combination of oil, fuzz, and brine. My mom would order pizzas coated end to end in these distinctive fish and I would lament the ruined pie, picking off the anchovies and then shunning the slice with the lingering, potent flavor.

As I got older, I became known as an unbridled culinary adventurer. Like Anthony Bourdain, I would put just about anything between my lips, smacking my gums and smiling, while friends reeled at the knowledge that I had consumed something wholeheartedly unsavory and often inedbile. However, I always drew the line at anchovies.

And then I discovered the cuisine of Italy. After living in Italy and consistently sampling the simple, aromatic food, I realized that anchovies were the backbone to beloved dishes such as Puttanesca. Anchovies bring out the taste of their accompanying ingredients, building round, complete flavor profiles.

Since I loved Italy’s cuisine with such an open heart (and open stomach), it was only a matter of time before I stopped hating the anchovy, starting loving it, and learned how to utilize it properly. Anchovies quickly became a member of my holy trinity of cooking, in addition to acidy lemon and aromatic garlic. I began picking up anchovy undertones in the foods I ate regularly, the salty ocean flavor dancing on my tongue. I began welcoming anchovy laden dishes into my recipe repertoire.

They say your taste changes every 5 to 7 years. Perhaps this was the case with my newfound love affair with my former fishy nemesis. I became excited to cook with anchovies, creatively slipping them into friendly foods, opening up hermetically sealed minds, convincing anchovy foes that they, too, hold a rightful place in the culinary scheme of life.

Caesar salad is a perfect example of an overwhelmingly popular food often made with anchovies. The salad, named in the 1920’s for its creator Cesar Cardini, did not originally contain anchovies. They were added later by Cesar’s brother Alex, at the Tijuana restaurant owned by Cesar. Culinary lore suggests Cesar begrudgingly added anchovies to appease his brother, thinking them unnecessary in his masterpiece. Personally, I’m on Alex’s train. The combination of salty fish, creamy parmesan, and crunchy crouton will have you saying “yes, please!” to the anchovy.

Anchovies also provide an important base flavor for a dish I recently found in my favorite publication, Gourmet Magazine. One taste of pasta with spicy anchovy sauce and dill bread crumbs will have you trying and trying to identify the subtle, hidden flavor. A quick and simple dish, I love how the fish plays up the sweet, almost caramelized onions and delicate, fresh dill. Using bucatini pasta gives it a whimsical texture. Make sure to cook the breadcrumbs until they are very, very crispy, but not burnt.

Caesar Salad

1 very large head of romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
Baguette, cut into 1 inch cubes, yielding 2 cups croutons
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cracked black pepper

Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup olive oil

1. Whisk all ingredients except oil in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewhisk before using.)

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk 1/4 cup oil and a pinch of course salt in large bowl to blend. Add bread cubes and toss to coat. Transfer croutons to baking sheet. Bake croutons until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

3. Place lettuce and croutons in large bowl. Sprinkle with cheese and toss with enough dressing to coat. Serve with any remaining dressing.

Yield: Makes about 1 1/3 cups vinaigrette; 6 servings.

Pasta with Spicy Anchovy Sauce and Dill Bread Crumbs

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from a baguette)
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 pound red onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
1 (2-ounce) can flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
1 pound bucatini or perciatelli pasta (long tubular strands)
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes

1. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook bread crumbs, stirring constantly, until deep golden and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer bread crumbs to a bowl and toss with dill and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.

2. Wipe out skillet, then cook onions with 1/4 teaspoon salt in remaining 1/2 cup oil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until very soft, 12 to 15 minutes. Add anchovies and cook, mashing anchovies into onions, until dissolved.

3. Meanwhile, cook bucatini in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 5 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain pasta.

4. Stir red-pepper flakes and reserved water into anchovy sauce, then add pasta and toss to combine. Add about half of bread crumbs and toss to coat. Serve sprinkled with remaining bread crumbs.

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

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