The Forgotten Fish

Kristen Frederickson

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Anchovies.

I grew up in the Midwest of America in the 1970s, and the only experience I had of anchovies was not ordering them on a pizza. “Who on earth EATS those things?” my friends and I wondered, consuming slices that carried absolutely every other ingredient. But stinky, oily anchovies? No way!

As an adult in the foodie world of New York and London, my eyes were opened every so slightly on the subject of anchovies, with my first taste of puttanesca sauce, that lovely Italian invention named for “ladies of the night” who found it a convenient dish because all the ingredients could be found in the cupboard, requiring no fresh shopping. Redolent with the bold, deep flavors of garlic, oil-cured black olives, capers and tomatoes, the sauce features a good sprinkling of anchovies. I was an instant convert, anxious to find other ways to use these under-appreciated little fishes.

Of course most of us have encountered anchovies in a classic Caesar salad, although I’ve been out to lunch with plenty of otherwise sensible people who diligently fish (hee-hee) every single anchovy out from between the Romaine and the croutons, and lay them on the edge of the plate. Poor anchovies have a reputation, that’s for sure. And then there’s Worcestershire sauce (here called Worcester sauce), the single-most famous use of anchovies in Britain.

It is my firm belief that if something is yummy, it would be even better with butter, so it was but the work of a moment to mix some anchovies with good unsalted butter over a medium heat until the fishes melted into a pungent liquid, ready to be spread on a slice of toasted baguette. This little snack is not for the faint of heart, as the anchovies have nowhere to hide. They’re full-on fishy.

Most of the time in my kitchen, anchovies appear in the category of Best Ingredient in a Supporting Role. They leap out of my cupboard simply begging to be included in many recipes, in most cases not tasting fishy at all, but simply adding a depth of flavor, a dramatic savory note that isn’t easily identified, but would be missed if it weren’t there. They’re perfect little gifts to the creative cook, because in general, they are preserved and can be kept for a long time in your pantry, ready to be added to many a tasty dish. Whether you prefer your anchovies in a lovely old-fashioned flat tin, suspended in golden olive oil, or standing upright in a glass jar, preserved in salt, you will come to depend on them to provide a crucial layer of umami, that mysterious “fifth flavor” set alongside The Big Four: sweet, sour, salt and bitter.

As the Umami Information Center tells us, “Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate” which occur naturally in many foods. Remember MSG, that infamous boogeyman of Chinese take-out? Well, it turns out that those cooks knew what they were doing. “Monosodium glutamate” is a manufactured version of these very same naturally occurring glutamates, which for some mysterious reason make foods… taste better.

But why reach for a test tube when you have real anchovies on hand to bump up the flavors of your food? They are a nutritional treasure trove of calcium, selenium, vitamin A and the all-important omega-3 fatty acids. Eight calories per fish! Heaven on a plate.

I add about four anchovies to many recipes, and you should too. Don’t worry about fishiness: you won’t taste it. They will simply lift the flavour of your chicken and three-bean chili, and you will taste the difference if you add them to your next quick shrimp stir-fry.  Puree them up with a handful of green olives and a splash of olive oil for the best salad dressing EVER.

Now that you’ve said your vow of loyalty to the under-appreciated preserved anchovy, pull up your socks and head over to the fishmonger for FRESH anchovies. I know this will sound outlandish to most of us who have never ever considered that anchovies weren’t born in a tin or jar, but there are loads of them swimming about in the oceans of the world. Good to know, anchovies harvested from the Bay of Biscay since 2010 have a strong sustainability rating. Here in the UK the anchovy season is an uncertain beast: hugely dependent on the warmth of the waters off our coasts, the haul can be non-existent, small or abundant. The balmy Mediterranean is much more predictably full of anchovies and some of them are flash-frozen and brought to the UK. That’s what I found at my fishmonger last week, and it’s been a real adventure ever since.

While I am not normally a huge fan of filleting a raw fish, there is something dollhouse-like about working on an anchovy. It’s like I’ve suddenly been made very, very large indeed, performing surgery on a tiny patient.

It’s divinely simple to prepare these little guys, but it’s time-consuming and you need a great many of them to add up to anything like a serving, so put on the radio, pull a stool up to the kitchen counter and get busy: scrape the scales away, then cut behind the head not quite all the way through, and pull the head. The guts will follow. Then gently open the belly and clean any further guts, and delicately peel away the spine. All the other bones will come with it, and Bob’s your uncle. Rinse the tiny little fillets and dry on paper towel.

Now you’re ready. You can dip them in tempura batter and eat them whole with a dipping sauce or mayo. In England this method is typically applied to “whitebait”, controversially young versions of various small fishes. Since anchovies are naturally tiny, you need not feel guilty as you’re not eating babies.

You can layer them in a potato gratin in a delightful Scandinavian recipe called “Jansson’s Temptation” for the side dish of a lifetime. Creamy, luxurious and savory, this recipe can accept either fresh or preserved anchovies, but the fresh version is, well, fresher. It’s perfect as an unexpected addition to your Thanksgiving board.

But I think nothing celebrates the fresh anchovy so well as what I call “The Ultimate Salad“. Bursting with all my favourite ingredients, admittedly a bit of a labor of love, this dish simply sings with color, texture, flavour and health. And the anchovies smile gently throughout, enjoying their moment in the sun, happy to have been remembered, after all.

Photo Credit: Kristen Frederickson & John Curran