"My father would eat them out of a can," says New Orleans restaurateur and TV chef John Besh. "If Dad was going hunting, he'd grab a can of smoked oysters or anchovies and crackers and that would be his lunch."
But today, chefs like Besh have moved anchovies to the top of the food chain, showcasing them as elegant bar snacks, sophisticated bruschetta or the foundation for pasta dishes and stews.
"They make friends and enemies quickly," says Seamus Mullen, chef-owner of Tertulia in New York City. "A bad anchovy is not a good thing. It's a question of making sure you get the right ones."
Getting the "right" anchovies has become much easier in recent years. The mushy, salty tinned anchovies eaten by Besh's father are still out there. But more and more, the shelves of gourmet stores and upscale supermarkets offer high-quality anchovies preserved in olive oil, pickled in vinegar or sometimes even fresh.
More menus feature items such as "boquerones," white anchovies, often dressed with vinegar. Fresh anchovies might be cooked over a wood fire or dressed with breadcrumbs and garlic. Sometimes, anchovies go undercover. Besh uses them as what he calls "nature's MSG," melting them into beef daube and lamb stew to intensify the savory flavours.
Nick Stefanelli, executive chef at Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca in Washington, D.C., uses them to make an ancient Roman fish sauce called garum.
"One of the most classic pasta dishes is spaghetti with fish sauce, garlic and chilies," says Stefanelli, who includes the dish on his tasting menus. "The product itself really takes it where it needs to be... It's so simple and beautiful."
Anchovies have been a staple of Italian, Spanish and Provencal French cooking for centuries. French and Italian country stews use them to provide umami, a sense of meatiness and depth. They are made into marinades and tapenades, tossed into pasta and mixed with garlic, breadcrumbs and parsley to stuff vegetables, such as peppers and eggplant. In Spain, they are among the finest tapas.
"In Spain, you can go into any tapas bar and you'll see anchovies all over the menu," chef-entrepreneur Jose Andres said via email from Spain. "What we are seeing right now in the U.S. is a food revolution where people want to know more about food and so as that is happening people are becoming more and more open to new ingredients and experiences."
Not that you'll see anchovies in the fast food lane any time soon. But as more and better quality anchovies become available, they're likely to play a bigger role on supermarket shelves and upscale menus. But in the wider world, they may hang out on pizza and Caesar salad a bit longer. Which is not such a bad thing.
"The Caesar salad with anchovies, when done well," Mullen says, "is pretty darn good."
So here are some tips for embracing anchovies in your own cooking:
— AIM HIGH
"Go for the ones in a jar," says Mullen. "The people producing them are proud of them." Mullen suggests topping a buttered rye cracker with an anchovy and a drizzle of vinegar. "The fatty butter goes a long way to temper the anchovy and gives it luxurious mouth feel," he says.
— GO BASIC
Cut up a head of cauliflower and boil some pasta, says Stefanelli. When the pasta is almost cooked, throw the cauliflower into the water. Heat olive oil, garlic, anchovies, raisins and pine nuts in a skillet. Drain the pasta and cauliflower and toss with the anchovy sauce. "Boom, 10 minutes you have dinner," he says.
— STUFF IT
Stuff zucchini flowers with mozzarella and anchovies, suggests Italian cookbook writer Michele Scicolone. Dip them in a light batter and fry until the cheese melts and the outside is crisp.
— GET FRUIT
"Anchovies pair really well with fruit like a nectarines or clementine," Andres says. "The fruit complements the sweetness and saltiness of the anchovy." Cut the fruit into small pieces and top with a dressing or anchovies and sherry vinegar.
ORANGE-ANCHOVY TAPENADE OVER GRILLED ENDIVE
Start to finish: 20 minutes
3/4 cup pitted Castelvetrano olives (or fresh-cured green olives)
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
6 anchovies, chopped
Zest and juice of 1/2 orange
2 tablespoons chopped capers
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Ground black pepper
4 Belgian endives, halved lengthwise
1/4 cup thinly sliced Peppadew peppers
Place the olives in a food processor and finely chop. Add the rosemary, anchovies, orange zest and juice, capers and balsamic vinegar. Pulse to mix. Season with pepper, then set aside.
Heat the grill or a grill pan to medium-high. Brush the endive halves with olive oil. Grill until just tender, about 3 minutes. Serve warm, topped with the tapenade and the Peppadew peppers.
Nutrition information per serving: 90 calories; 50 calories from fat (56 per cent of total calories); 6 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 8 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 3 g protein; 600 mg sodium.
(Recipe by Alison Ladman)
BAKED POTATOES WITH LEMON, ANCHOVY AND BURRATA
Start to finish: 55 minutes
4 medium baking potatoes, such as Russet
Two 4-ounce pieces burrata cheese
Zest of 1 lemon
8 marinated white anchovies
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Salt and ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Use a fork to poke the potatoes all over, then place them directly on the rack inside the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Using a clean kitchen towel, squeeze open each of the potatoes to create a deep cavity.
Cut the burrata balls in half, using care to lose none of the cream in the centre. Place a piece of burrata inside each of the potatoes, followed by a bit of lemon zest, a few anchovies and a sprinkle of pine nuts. Season with salt and black pepper, as desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 370 calories; 150 calories from fat (41 per cent of total calories); 17 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 55 mg cholesterol; 39 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 17 g protein; 340 mg sodium.
(Recipe by Alison Ladman)