Saturday, September 5, 2009

What's the Big Stink about Anchovies?


My love affair with anchovies began in my childhood, on a Christmas Eve. It involved an antipasto platter laden with olives, palm hearts, tightly rolled cornets of salami and mortadella, and a glistening pile of very salty fish fillets, each coiled around its own little prize ~ a single caper. My first taste was a revelation. These little reddish gray fish were dense with salt, bristling with fine bones, reeking but delicious. I was hooked for life from bite one.

People generally fall into two camps regarding anchovies: passionate fans and equally passionate abstainers. The former can't get enough. They know the difference between a white anchovy and a red one, and they will happily consume all the anchovies picked off the top of their dining companions' Greek salads. Those who fall into the latter camp are so turned off by anchovies that they have been known to refuse even to sit next to a dinner companion who orders something with anchovies, lest they be overcome by an errant whiff.

If you fall into this latter camp, consider when you had your first taste of anchovy. Was it on top of an atomically hot slice at a pizza parlor? Or worse . . . were you trying to enjoy your pepperoni slice, sitting next to someone indulging in an anchovy pie, fumes descending on you in a sunny-day-at-the-loading-dock cloud of stink? If so, the extreme heat of the pizza oven would have made that poor anchovy smell and taste even stronger, bringing up the fishiness and the salt to levels only hard-core anchovy lovers could (and do) appreciate.

Please, don't hesitate to try anchovies again. Desalted, they're much milder. Maybe try them in a chilled application, like a salad dressing, or in a sauce with many other robust flavors. You'll be amazed that you can't even pick out a "fishy" flavor ~ the anchovy seems to melt into the whole, contributing it's layer of umami and adding an indescribable element of richness.

In the U.S., anchovies are most commonly sold in their preserved form. It's difficult, but not impossible to find fresh anchovies. But because of their high oil content and small size, they don't transport well and are preserved to avoid spoilage. If you happen upon some fresh anchovies in your fish market, though, lucky you ~ you're in for a treat. Marinate or grill these little fish; the flavor is entirely different from the cured version.

Look for preserved anchovy fillets in flat oblong cans or small jars, packed in oil or salt. Anchovy paste, sold in tubes, is useful for recipes that call for mashed anchovies ~ sauces, dressings, and the like. For fillets, I highly recommend buying anchovies in the little glass jars over the cans, unless you plan to use the entire can right away. The glass jars are resealable, and when you're dealing with a 3-inch fish that has the capacity to overpower and incapacitate any other flavor you have in your refrigerator, that is something to consider. However, if you can't find the jars, buy the can and transfer the anchovy fillets to a tightly sealed small glass container in your refrigerator, away from easily impressionable foods like milk and butter and the charlotte russe you carefully created for tomorrow's dinner party.

If you find anchovies too salty for your taste or your recipe, you can easily desalt them. Simply soak the fillets in a bit of milk, dry white wine, or plain water for about half an hour. Rinse them in cool water and gently pat them dry prior to using them in a recipe.

My favorite way to eat anchovies is straight from the jar with a small cocktail fork. My favorite socially acceptable way to eat them is arranged prettily atop a homemade pizza. Other nice (and civilized) ways to enjoy anchovies include pissaladiere, bagna cauda, and pasta puttanesca.Won't you join me for dinner?

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