mmm, anchovies

I love anchovies. I can't get enough of them. They are the perfect salty flavor enhancer, on pizza, pasta, and so many other things. One of my favorite pizzas is a simple margarita base (that's tomato sauce and mozzarella), with calamata olives and anchovies.

Yet when I tell some people about my love for that little salty fish, they shudder. "Eww, anchovies!" they say. I think the people who hate it because they've had ones that have been out of the can for too long. It does get rather strong when it's sort of dried out and stale. Of course, to anchovy fans, the stronger the better sometimes.

The salty-fishy taste is quite universally favored as a base flavor. The Romans used to have a fermented fish-and-salt sauce, called garum. This was made by salting and then fermenting the insides of fish in a vat for several days. This sounds rather disgusting to modern ears, until you realize that it seems rather similar to Vietnamese nuoc mam, or Thai nam pla - addictive, salty/fishy sauces that add just that right "hidden flavor" to so many things. (There is also a Japanese version of this type of fermented fish sauce called shottsuru.)

Back to anchovies though. There are good and bad anchovies. Good quality canned anchovies are smooth, not sort of flaky and bony. Shop around for a good brand. Incidentally, I don't really get anchovies rolled around capers. Capers are best preserved in brine, and anchovies are best I think preserved in oil. They can fit very well together when married into a sauce or so, but those itty rolls of a single anchovy fillet wrapped around a single caper - that I do not understand.

If you are a real anchovy fan you'd like them straight, for example draped over boiled egg slices in a salad, or on top of a pizza. Otherwise, you can try using them as a flavoring first. The anchovy-ness can be tempered with lemon juice, or garlic.

Here then follow two recipes using anchovies as a main flavor. One is for a simple spaghetti with anchovies, lemon, garlic, hot red peppers and pine nuts. The other one is for a tuna, anchovy and caper spread that's great on toast.

Spaghetti with anchovies and lemon

  • 500g / about 1 pound of spaghetti (I like no. 7, or Spaghettoni)
  • 1 50g can of flat anchovies - or two, if you want
  • 1 large lemon
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 cup of pine nuts
  • 1tsp or more of red pepper flakes
  • olive oil
  • freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano, or Grana Padano (optional)

Cook the spaghetti in salted water to the al dente stage. While it's cooking, chop the garlic and sauté in olive oil. Toast the pine nuts gently in a dry frying pan.

Add the anchovies to the garlic and oil. It will spit at you vigorously, so be careful. Smoosh up the anchovies with your spatula. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into the pan. Add the red pepper flakes, and some black pepper. You shouldn't need to add salt, since the anchovies are salty enough.

Add the just cooked spaghetti to the sauce. Add the toasted pine nuts and toss vigourously. Sprinkle with cheese at the table. If you like, add some Tabasco to give it even more heat.

Tuna, anchovy and caper spread

  • 1 small onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 2 100g / 3 1/2 oz cans of tuna packed in oil
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 50g can of flat anchovies
  • 3 Tbs capers
  • Salt and pepper

Roughly chop the onion and the garlic. Drain the tuna.

Put the steel cutting blade in the food processor and add the onion, garlic, tuna and the can of anchovies, oil and all. Process until very smooth. Add a bit of extra virgin olive oil if necessary to make a smooth paste.

Take out of the food processor, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the capers.

This is very good on hot toasted bread, It also makes a very good pasta sauce - just add a little more olive oil, or some lemon juice, to make it a bit thinner, and toss with hot pasta.

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