The salty, savoury flavour bombs that I’ve been in a passionate love affair with ever since I first learned to cook.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on anchovies: the salty, savoury flavour bombs that I’ve been in a passionate love affair with ever since I first learned to cook.
For paid subscribers click here for my recipes for my Anchovy Oeufs Mayonnaise, Double Anchovy Butter Spaghetti with Anchovy Breadcrumbs, and my Marinated Romano Peppers with Anchovies and Basil.
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Anchovies have always been in that marmite category of foods: either you love them or you hate them.
Me, obviously, I can’t get enough of the little brown bombs of super savoury, fishy concentration. The best dippy eggs and soldiers in my book are ones made with anchovy butter, and often unless I’m in a purist sort of mood I get them as the sole added topping on my pizza order (unless I’m getting one from Unita 4 in Ashford, our new find who do simply divine griddled courgette slices instead).
I don’t understand why people don’t like anchovies.
Anchovies, for me, fall into two different categories: the slippery brown anchovies that come packed in salt or oil, that fall apart on your fork or on the tip of your knife when you try to unseat one from its cosy home amongst its friends, and which happily melt into a rich, brown, barely there flavour booster once finely chopped and stirred into a mess of good olive oil and slow cooked onions in the pan. These are the anchovies I keep on hand in the fridge door so I’ve always got them to add to something, and the anchovies I think express themselves best in *that* Provincial roasted red pepper and tomato dish that Delia Smith made so popular in the nineties, but which deserves to be on your summer menu on repeat forever.
Yes you need the best, big red peppers, mouthwatering summer tomatoes (always home grown for us, anything else is a pale imitation and will ruin the dish) good olive oil, and a fat, plump garlic clove or two thinly sliced, but it the simple cross of brown anchovy fillets lovingly draped over each that infuse the delicious cooking juices with their addictive, briny flavour that constitutes the best thing on the plate, mopped up with plenty of crusty French baguette. As well as at home this anchovy dish was a firm fixture with an icy bottle of cheap supermarket rosé many a lunchtime on the patio in Brittany, and is the one dish I can remember the four of us sharing, rather than some of our other house lunchtime favourites, crevettes doused in parsley-flecked warm garlic butter, for example, or local crab claws, simply boiled and the picked meat dipped in a dab of supermarket cocktail sauce, thick like proper mayonnaise and enriched with Cognac, which were dishes just my father and I cooked and ate together.
There are of course the other type of anchovy, the fatter, plumper, silver skinned anchovy you get in tins, which I think are more suited to salads: again on our French patio, I remember tucking into a salad of them made with simple boiled, cooked and sliced potatoes, local lettuce and a classic Dijon mustard - red wine vinegar - extra virgin olive oil (sorry, I think it works better than neutral oil) vinaigrette. They are what made dinner along with a crisp bottle of white on one of the hottest days we’d ever experienced at our Northern French bolt-hole so special.
Anchovies are tiny oily bait fish which, in most cases for culinary purposes have been gutted, cured in brine, and then packed for preservation in oil or salt - this is how they become deep brown and hyper-savoury.
They can however be given a milder treatment: an anchovy variety that deserves a special mention here, the anchovies I think of when I think of anchovies to simply just eat rather than the brown ones I cook into or onto things are silvery plump Spanish bocquerones - fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil, rather than being subjected to long term preservation.
For me they’re best associated with (and eaten as) pinxtos as they need a cold drink in hand (whilst milder and with more structural integrity than their brown brothers in the jar they still pack a punch), either skewered with slithers of mild white onion and fat green olives late at night in the streets of Lorengo during the harvest season, or simply dressed on a plate with a spritz of lemon juice and plenty of fresh dill where I enjoyed them after work in a tikki bar of all places alongside a platter of drunken octopus in the City of London.
A special mention has to go to the fact anchovies also form the backbone of Worcestershire Sauce, the condiment we probably all use to add a boost of savoury to something (for me it is essential to making a homemade barbecue sauce, adding depth to my Cottage Pie, and boosting the pan gravy I serve with our Sunday roasts) and that I don’t think a British pantry would be a British pantry without.
Fish sauce is another one that would not be quite the same without the ability to ferment anchovies together with salt; across the diaspora various fish are used, anchovies included, but especially in Korea anchovy fish sauces add a much needed hit of savoury funk to traditional dishes.
This article is focused on cured, preserved anchovies in tins and jars (except for bocquerones of course, which are still a deli counter item if I’m lucky) because that is what I have available to me, but I wish I had fresh ones to hand, both to conduct my own curing process as I’m curious to see the difference between the ones I buy and the ones I could make, and because I’d also love to try and go down the Malaysian route, deep frying them and serving them as a sort of fritto misto exercise, or else simply butterflying and grilling them to go with a fresh tomato salsa atop some bruschetta, as is common with butterflied sardines around these parts (I’m thinking both in local pubs and my summer kitchen).
If you cook with fresh anchovies at home, I’d love to hear what you make with them in the comments!
For this months recipes, I’ve chosen three recipes for summer I think really express the savoury depth, as well as versatility of the humble, oft-underrated anchovy.
First, I’ve turned to my beloved anchovy butter, here coating the glossy strands of linguini, but I’ve also melted anchovies into the breadcrumb mixture for added savoury crunch, the whole thing lifted with a touch of parsley, a pinch of dried chilli flakes and a light sprinkling of fresh lemon zest. Dinner, but ready in about 20 minutes. Cook it for one, and you’ll want to eat it right out the pan.
Next, my Marinated Romano Peppers with Anchovies and Basil. Honestly, I know this is a piece about anchovies but I’d happily eat these by themselves in their rich, sweet, tangy bath. However, add the anchovies and you’ll be awarded with salty bursts of umami throughout a salad will rethink how you serve peppers throughout August.
Seriously, though, make these peppers, and if there are any vegetarians or vegans about, sub out the anchovies for salty, briny capers instead.
Finally, a simple snack or starter. I think both the garlic aioli I made for a Spanish-inspired spread on Father’s Day and this brilliant Food52 article I read about oeufs mayonnaise are still in my head, because it turned out my idea to enrich a homemade mayonnaise with anchovies and dollop it generously onto the cut side up of a boiled egg like a lazy persons devilled egg (it’s July, who can really be bothered with something a bit more complex?) worked brilliantly. Keep these in the fridge as an afternoon snack, serve them as part of a lunch spread, or as a simple nibble with drinks before dinner. It is no mistake that all of this months recipes pair perfectly the aforementioned ice cold rosé.