When I cook, I often get hungry. I like to nibble on something, so I’ll open the fridge and grab the unsalted butter and the small jar of salt-packed anchovies that is always sitting in a corner. A slice of bread will do. I’ll slather it with butter, then tackle the anchovy. I rinse a fillet under cold running water, remove the bones, and then place it on my buttered bread. If I’m feeling sophisticated, I’ll add a tiny wedge of lemon; otherwise, I’ll greedily bite into my pane e acciuga with utter satisfaction. In its stark simplicity, this is food fit for a king.
I’m an anchovy advocate, born into a family of anchovy lovers. Trust me: Don’t let your past bad experiences with overcooked, shriveled anchovies on pizza prevent you from discovering the extraordinary qualities of good anchovies, ones that have been treated or cooked with care.
These small, humble fish are brimming with flavor. You can eat them on their own, which for me is a treat, especially when paired with excellent butter and crusty bread. Drape one on half a hard-boiled egg, and you’ll elevate it to the status of cicchetti, the Venetian version of tapas.
Even more interestingly, though, anchovies can become your secret ingredient in the kitchen when slowly melted in warm olive oil. They add an umami boost not only to seafood dishes and soups, but also to meat stews and braises, to salad vinaigrettes and vegetable stir-fries. The added flavor is not fishy at all, it just enhances all the other flavors.
Anchovies 3 Ways
I grew up in an anchovy-loving family, so there have always been anchovies in our fridge. I store them in the fridge once the jars are opened, and they can keep for months. They usually come in three forms:
These anchovies are sold whole, bones and tail intact, covered in coarse sea salt. You either find them in glass jars in supermarkets, or big cans in local delis. Rinse them thoroughly under cold running water to remove the excess salt, then simply fillet them by removing the spine; from each anchovy, you will obtain two neat fillets.
If you’re looking for high quality and an intense anchovy experience, opt for salt-packed anchovies, as the preserving process concentrates the flavor, capturing the briny taste of the sea. Use these anchovies in pasta sauces or vinaigrettes, or to make acciughe al verde, anchovy fillets marinated in a herby sauce, or bagna cauda, Piedmont’s famous assertive, garlic-based dip.
Oil-packed anchovies are salt-packed anchovies that have already been rinsed, filleted, and preserved in oil. Just fish out a fillet with a fork and lay it on your buttered bread, or melt it into warm olive oil to add an umami boost to any dish.
If you are a beginner with anchovies and want to tackle them gradually, choose oil-packed anchovies. Search for good-quality jarred or canned anchovies from Italy or Spain, packed in pure olive oil.
This has been a staple in my house for years. I prefer topping my buttered bread with a fillet, but my mum usually smears on some anchovy paste directly from the tube. This was also a quick snack my grandmother would make me before a road trip, since she believed the salt in the anchovies would prevent me from getting carsick.
Use anchovy paste wherever you need some background anchovy flavor in a dish. This is one of the essential ingredients in crostini neri, Tuscan chicken liver crostini, providing savoriness, umami, and a perfect contrast to the sweet chicken livers.
Three Italian Recipes
Anchovies can be the star of a dish, as in the Piedmontese acciughe al verde. They can be a starring partner, as in mozzarella in carrozza, where they become a filling along with mozzarella. Or they can be a background note, as in this pasta with cherry tomatoes. Experiment with these three Italian recipes and discover how easy it is to fall in love with anchovies.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” She is currently working on her sixth cookbook. Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com.