For such a small fish, the anchovy certainly generates its fair share of controversy.
Found in warm oceans throughout the world, the anchovy is as polarizing a fish – from a flavor standpoint – as one will find. Most commonly found as filets in canned or jarred form, this small fish imparts it assertive character into whichever dish it is incorporated. Used judiciously in Italian cuisine, anchovies can add depth (you could call it umami, if you pleased), meatiness and character. Used liberally, they can take over a meal entirely.
The Spanish, though, can eat their milder, vinegared anchovies with peppers, and the Vietnamese use theirs for fish sauce. The Turks even make a bread with them. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ate theirs on pizza. From Caesar Salad to the Greek Gavros Marinatos, the anchovy is used as a key component in cuisines throughout the world.
It is Italian food, however, that is often associated with this tiny fish, so we asked Lucia Owner and Chef David Uygur to tell us a little bit about what he thinks of the anchovy and how he prefers to impart its unique characteristics. And yes, he even gives us a recipe.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, David. How important of a role would you say anchovies play in an Italian kitchen?
I would say they’re a staple of a good pantry. It’s universal throughout Italy, although when you get the fresh ones like you can in Liguria, those are treated in a different way and that’s pretty cool.
When it comes to anchovies, have you noticed a typical reaction to the ingredient itself?
I think the most common issue is that there are misconceptions as far as how they’re prepared or served. Also quality. Often times, when it comes to anchovies, you get what you pay for. So if you spent 69 cents on one of those pull-tab things that you get at the convenience store, it tastes like salty hairy mustache – which is what it looks like. It’s the same thing that you would get at an inexpensive pizzeria. But if you’ll spend a little bit more money, you’ll get a much better product.
Almost even more than that, though, it’s how you use them that makes the biggest difference. For example, take Caesar salad: somebody who says, ‘I’ll have the Caesar salad with no anchovies,’ isn’t having Caesar salad. At least not to my way of thinking. There are a lot of ways to get converts, and probably the easiest one is the Caesar salad; people have been eating it anyway without knowing that it had anchovies in it and wondering why it’s so salty and delicious. Well, a lot of the reason is because it has anchovies.
The way I use them most, though, is as a backbone to another sauce. It’s not that I’m sneaking it in there – it’s one of those things where a little bit into a sauce makes all the difference in the world when it comes to something like a salsa verde, which is something that we make every day in different variations. For instance, the one that we’re making now, we serve with lamb. Basically it’s garlic, anchovies, capers, mint, parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. It’s just really dense, with herbs and that flavorful mix of stuff. If you didn’t have anchovies in there – because of the amount of olive oil – it would taste bland. The anchovies in there provide not only salt, but they also that ‘funk’ that matches the freshness of the herb. I don’t know how to put it; that musky, weird – I guess lots of people would say umami – basically that yummy, weird flavor that’s a backbone. I also use it in marinades in a similar way.
Most people are familiar with anchovies in their packed form. What would you say to look for when buying them? That is to say, what makes a good anchovy?
They’re all packed in a similar way, but they’re of varying qualities. Basically, there are two different common varieties: salted or the packed in oil, and frankly, it’s just a matter of preference. I like them both, as long as they’re good quality. And as far as how to tell good quality from bad quality – if you’re not sure, don’t spend less than a dollar on it.
Another thing to remember is that they’re meant to be a pantry item. They’re salted well or they’re covered in oil; as long as you keep them that way, you’ll never have to throw any out. So I mean if you go and buy one of those big cans of anchovies in salt, that’s great – keep it in your fridge until you use them all. And the only way, the only thing you need to know to keep them well is that once you pull a couple of them out, just pour some more salt on them – you’re not going to make them too salty. Then, the way you manage it when you eat it is, after you take them out of the salt you put them under cold running water for a few minutes. Often times, the salted ones will come either whole or head off and gutted, so you have to fillet them. But if you let the water run over it from the tap, the water will pretty much do the filleting for you, which is neat and easy. Then you don’t have to use a knife or anything; you can just pull it apart with your fingers.
Is it common to use anchovy filets whole?
Well, there’s the Caesar salad, but they can be really nice with a whole bunch of different kinds of things. What you would have in that case is probably the Spanish, which is the most common as far as the white anchovies. But they do the same thing in Italy; it’s called Alici Marinate, which is just filets of anchovies that have been salted for a little bit of time and then marinated in vinegar. Those are great on things like beets or roasted peppers. Since they’re sour – because they’ve been in vinegar – they’re really nice with vegetables that have some natural sweetness to them. Really, though, anchovies generally aren’t a star on their own.
Is there a particular Italian dish that, to you, illustrates a good use of anchovies? And if so, could we beg a recipe?
Yeah, definitely. Click here for David Uygur’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca recipe