It’s time to give anchovies another try
Fried, fresh, marinated, grilled or seared. These little fish pack a huge flavor punch and most people either love them or hate them. I dipped my toes in slowly with anchovies. While I am now fully in the former camp, my love affair truly started last year when we were traveling around the Amalfi coast before the Caputo Cup in Naples. Every place we ate at, we ordered fried anchovies to start. A huge platter of perfectly golden, crispy, whole little fishies appeared before us. They were just the right amount of salt and crunch. The size varied but the flavor always remained similar. They tasted like the sea; super fresh and almost minerally. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. Even if you think you don’t like anchovies, what a lot of people don’t realize is that they are the secret ingredient behind a lot of Italian sauces and dishes. They create that elusive fifth taste, umami, that lingers in your mouth and makes you crave more.
Anchovies have earned a bad reputation in the United States, unlike almost every other country where they are celebrated and used in abundance. This might be because we don’t use quality anchovies, or we don’t know how to balance them in recipes. While many people associate them as fillets with a brownish hue and hairy texture swimming around on a cheese slice, they have so many more uses. They are the main ingredient in fish sauce. Different versions of which are seen everywhere from Vietnam, Malaysia and Finland. Other cuisines utilize them dried or made into a paste, something that can be traced back to the Roman Empire where they made an extremely prized condiment called garum. While there are 144 species of anchovies found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, the most popular is the Engraulis encrasicolus, or European anchovy.
Anchovies don’t start out as those super salty, reddish brown fillets. Pulled straight from the water they are beautiful sliver fish with stark white flesh. It is the curing and packing process that produces what we often see sold in stores. There are few different ways to buy anchovies. The most commonly available are those that are processed as filets and packed in barrels of oil for several months. This amplifies the salty, oily taste of the fish. Needless to say, a small amount goes a long way. While these anchovies are not always the highest quality, nor is the oil they are packed in, they are still great used in dressings and sauces.
Salt-packed anchovies are generally a higher quality, with the salt drawing out excess moisture and oil and concentrating the flavor. Just make sure to rinse the filets under cold water before use to get rid of any excess salt.
And then there are marinated white anchovies, typical of Spain and Southern Italy. They are marinated in vinegar and other seasonings and should be used as part of the dish and not hidden beneath the flavors. We use them draped on our Caesar salad and nestled on top of pies.
Packed full of flavor, there are so many ways to maximize an anchovy’s unique taste at your pizzeria. Adding just a few to pizza or pasta sauce can transform the flavor, bringing a depth that won’t otherwise be present. They are fantastic as an appetizer, fried as I mentioned before or even marinated and served on toast. You can mix them into a tapenade, accompanied by some house-made focaccia. They, of course, account for one of the most popular salads, Caesar. We add the salty, oil packed variety to our dressing and have the option to top the salad with some beautiful Italian white anchovies. And then there is pizza.
One of the best pizzas I have ever had was from Dan Richer at Razza in Jersey City, New Jersey. Of course, I was blown away by his incredible dough, but his application of anchovies…My goodness! He makes a Brussels sprout pie topped with melted anchovies. It is a pie that I have tried to replicate many times over just to satisfy my own cravings for it since I live 3,000 miles away. The flavor is just the right amount of salt and umami. The anchovies literally melt into the pie, creating a cohesive flavor and texture that even anti-anchovy people will love. But you don’t have to make melted anchovies to make them delicious on a pizza.
I’ve put them on whole with roasted sweet onions, Brussels, marinara, garlic and finished with a handful of grated parmesan. If you have the beautiful white Italian ones they are fantastic as a post oven topper. I like them on a white pie, on top of a bed of arugula with a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a big pour of quality extra virgin olive oil. They also go great with olives. The saltiness of the fish compliments and cuts through the brininess of the olives. Think puttanesca on a pie. Add a heavy hit of garlic and maybe a few leeks. Then there is one of my favorites, the classic Marinara pizza with a few choice anchovies on top. If you’re lucky enough to come by fresh anchovies, don’t hesitate to dive right in.
Fresh anchovies seem to be a rarity in the States. So, I was pleasantly surprised when, nested between the salmon kabobs, halibut steaks and prawns I spotted a tiny sea of silver skins. They are wild caught and super cheap. Having never cooked or cured the tiny fish myself, I was super excited to take them home and play around. They are surprisingly easy to clean. You can simply leave them whole and cook them with their heads and spines attached. However, if you come across some that are a little larger and just want the filet, simply cut the head off with a pair of scissors and pull the skeleton out. I like to marinate them in something simple like a squeeze of fresh lemon, extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs, salt and pepper. I let them soak in it for an hour or so and them either use them as a base for pasta, sautéed with broccoli and Chile flakes or even just cooked and eaten straight off of the plate.
Anchovies are for everyone. Well, maybe not vegans, but everyone else. You just don’t know it yet. They are the secret ingredient that rounds out a dish and drops the ultimate flavor bomb. They hide in the background to prop up the other ingredients. The key to their success is knowing how much to use and what quality of fish to buy depending on how you are utilizing them. In the Post-Pandemic world, you’ll know where to find me. I’ll be the girl on the Amalfi with a huge plate of golden fried little fishies and a Marinara pie.
Audrey Kelly is the owner and pizzaiola at Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, CO.