Off the Beaten Aisle: Anchovies

By: J.M. Hirsch

If anchovies gross you out, know this: Compared to what people ate before there were anchovies, they’re practically cake and ice cream.

Because until about the 16th century there were no anchovies as we know them today. That is, small silvery fish that are boned, salt-cured and packed in oil.

Instead, there was garum -- the juice of salted and fermented fish guts. Garum lost favor about 500 years ago when people learned how to make anchovies.

Can’t imagine why.

Anchovies, however, are not a singular fish. Most cuisines around the world have their own “anchovy,” most of which tend to be variants of one variety of fish, a relative of the herring.

But given the ick factor some people suffer, why eat them?

Easy. They are flavor bombs that lend serious "wow!" to whatever they are added to. And the good news is that the flavor they add isn’t even a little fishy.

Here’s why. After months of salt-curing, the dominant flavors in anchovies come from enzymes and good bacteria, not the flesh itself (of which there is little).

The result is an intense blend of fatty, salty, savory, meaty and even a bit of cheesy flavor.

Even better, when you cook them, anchovies dissolve, leaving behind a massive savory flavor but no evidence that any fish were harmed in the making.

Anchovies are widely used in the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. In Turkey they are so prized they have inspired volumes of poetry, even folk dances.

That is some serious anchovy love.

Even if you don’t like them dumped on pizzas, chances are you’ve eaten plenty of anchovies: They are a critical ingredient for Caesar salad and olive tapenade.

You’ll generally find anchovies alongside the Italian foods or with tuna. Most varieties are packed in oil in cans or jars. Some delis also sell salt-packed anchovies, but these sometimes need to be boned and should always be rinsed.

Many grocers also sell anchovy paste, which is ground anchovies blended with oil and sometimes seasonings. The pastes are fine in a pinch, but whole anchovies tend to have better flavor.

Unopened cans can be stored at room temperature for a year; opened cans can be refrigerated for a week or two.

So what should you do with them? Whatever you decide, take it easy. Anchovies are a rich and salty food; start with a little and taste.

•    Tapenade (olive spread) is a no-brainer. In a food processor, combine kalamata olives, a few anchovies, some capers, fresh thyme, olive oil and lemon juice. Pulse until mostly smooth, then use as a dip for bread or as a sandwich spread.

•    Make a cheater Caesar salad. In a processor, puree mayonnaise, anchovies, lemon juice and black pepper until smooth. Thin with a bit of water, then use to dress chopped romaine lettuce. Add croutons and chicken.

•    Make an insanely savory compound butter for steak.  In a processor, blend a stick of softened butter with 2 or 3 anchovies until smooth. Place a dollop of this over a freshly grilled steak.

•    Or use the same approach to make an amazing garlic bread. Follow the compound butter method, but add a few cloves of garlic to the processor. Spread on bread, then toast as you normally would.

•    Make a classic pasta dish: In a skillet heat several anchovies, a splash of olive oil, some garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes. When the anchovies have dissolved, add chopped broccoli raab. When the greens start to wilt, toss in cooked pasta and as much grated Parmesan as you can handle.

•    Ready for the whole fish? Make panzanella (bread and tomato salad). Toss together chopped tomatoes and cubes of stale bread. Season with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic and chopped fresh oregano. Add whole anchovies. It’s delicious.

•    Make a marinade for steak or chicken. Blend anchovies, olive oil, cider vinegar, black pepper and garlic, then use to marinate meat.

Flatbread Pizza With Anchovy Oil

I keep this pizza simple in order to let the anchovy oil really shine. But if you prefer a heavy duty pizza, by all means pile on the toppings. Don’t want to make your own flatbread? Use the same anchovy oil and toppings on a ball of pizza dough from the grocer.

How long: 25 minutes
How much: 2 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
¼ cup warm water
2 oil-packed anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Pinch red pepper flakes
2 cups baby spinach
1 cup sliced white button mushrooms
2 cups shredded fontina or other semisoft cheese

Heat the oven to 500 degrees F. Spray two baking sheets with olive oil cooking spray.

In a food processor, combine the flour and salt, then pulse to combine. With the processor running, add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then slowly drizzle in the water until the dough forms a tacky, but not wet, ball. If the dough is too dry, add water 1 teaspoon at a time and pulse until it holds together easily when squeezed.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured counter. Divide the dough into four equal pieces. Using a floured rolling pin, roll each piece to the size of a large dinner plate.

Place two flatbreads on each baking sheet and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the anchovies, garlic and red pepper flakes. Mash with a fork until chunky smooth.

Use a pastry brush to coat each flatbread with the oil-anchovy paste, then top every one with a quarter each of the spinach and mushrooms.

Finish each pizza with ½ cup of cheese. Bake for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned at the edges and the cheese is melted.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 660 calories; 350 calories from fat (53 percent of total calories); 39 g fat (14 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 65 mg cholesterol; 53 g carbohydrate; 23 g protein; 3 g fiber; 1100 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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