Anchovy Umami

Do you like anchovies? That was a question I took for granted until comparatively recently. Of course I don’t like anchovies. Nobody does. Why else would the most often-repeated phrase that follows ‘I’d like a pizza with everything’, be ‘but hold the anchovies’? I had probably never even tasted anchovies. I just knew that if they didn’t go with pizza, chances are they wouldn’t go with anything.

How wrong I was. Anchovies go with everything, as I discovered today.

If you’re one of those people who think they don’t like anchovies, you may be ready to hit the back button and find something better to read. I would beg you to hear me out, however, because I believe anchovies are one of nature’s best-kept culinary secrets. I used to think that there are people who like anchovies and those who don’t, a love-it-or-hate-it scenario if there ever was one. I now realize it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. While it’s true that there are people who really love anchovies for what they are (like Manuel, who eats them straight out of the jar!), there are far more of us who love the gutsy punch they give to food without realizing what we’re loving. I find them impossible to eat straight, which includes basically any form in which the pieces are larger than a fingernail. I don’t like them on pizza, for example – they’re just too overpowering. But chop them up, add some garlic for piquancy, something creamy for smoothness, maybe some fragrant herbs to round out the flavors, and the humble anchovy is transformed into something almost ethereally good. To me it embodies the concept of the Japanese word ‘umami’, which translates variously as our fifth sense, savoryness or pungency.

I was impressed by Coleman Andrews’ description in his book Catalan Cuisine of the marvellous anchovies caught and preserved in Catalonia; not filleted and packed in oil-filled cans, but simply beheaded and layered in salt with a few fresh herbs. He claims that after a simple soak, the anchovies you get with this method are ‘near-miraculous’: sweet, subtle, slightly tart, and hands down better than any oil-packed variety.

anchovies.jpgNot being able to find any such thing in my local Tesco supermarket, and being in Barcelona a couple of months ago, I took his advice and picked up a jar of salt-packed anchovies (which later leaked in my luggage and created a smell indescribably foul, but that’s another story). They’re whole fish, minus the heads, which means they have to be split, gutted and filleted before being used – but they’re pretty small fish, so it’s not much of a job.

I didn’t have any particular dish in mind when I decided to finally pop the lid today, but I knew that I wanted to use them for something special. I got out my Larousse Gastronomique, and opened the index to anchovies. There it was, staring right at me – the most bizarre recipe for anchovies I had ever seen. Surely there was no better test of the salt-packed swimmers’ merit than this:

Corsican Anchoiade with Figs

Soak 5 anchovy fillets in cold water to remove the salt, then wipe them dry.
Pound them with 450 grams fresh figs and 1 small garlic clove.
Spread this paste on bread moistened with olive oil.

I followed directions pretty closely on this one, save for the figs; fresh ones are just not in season in this hemisphere, so I substituted dried ‘semi-reconstituted’. I processed the ingredients together in the food processor until I couldn’t see any bits of anchovy or garlic. I then sniffed it with great trepidation – garlic and anchovy. Not an auspicious start to a mouthful you know will contain mostly fruit! But I couldn’t lose faith now. I tasted it, and amazingly enough,  it was exquisite! The figs have a robust, raisiny, leathery flavor that is just assertive enough to balance the strong anchovy and garlic. It was sweet, but not too sweet. The fish was there, but the anchovy had worked its magic and melded its own identity with that of the other two ingredients to create something completely new. The salt-packed anchovies did seem to give it a subtleness I haven’t tasted in anchovy preparations before, but I don’t see why a good soak for the oil-packed kind wouldn’t achieve the same result. I served it with a soft goat’s cheese and bread; it was inhaled by everyone I served it to (and several asked me what ‘that mysterious flavor’ was!). I now stand humbled before this little salted fish, whose culinary dexterity seems to know no bounds!

Corsican Anchoiade with Figs

Here are another couple favorite ways with anchovies.

‘Dragon’s Breath’ Caesar salad

3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3-4 filets anchovies, finely chopped (I don’t bother to soak for this)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lemon juice, and maybe more
1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling

Romaine lettuce, torn in pieces
something crunchy: croutons are traditional, I also use toasted nuts

Mix the dressing ingredients, and mix a few spoonfuls with a bowlful of salad. This is one salad that’s better to toss all together rather than drizzle on the dressing at the table. Sprinkle with the croutons or nuts and some extra parmesan cheese. Make sure everyone you’ll be breathing around eats some too!

Anchovy-Rosemary Mayonnaise

5-6 fillets anchovies, finely chopped (soaking not necessary)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 cup mayonnaise

Mix everything together, and chill for a couple of hours to blend the flavors. This is fantastic with burgers, roast vegetables, grilled chicken, fish…