A health food for some, a gourmet food to others and a scary little fish for still others.
This tiny little fish swims in schools throughout most of the world’s oceans. Most become food for bigger fish, but sea-going cultures all over the world consume these tiny creatures and have incorporated them into their respective cuisines. This fish is a small, warm water relative of the herring, a Northern European staple, and just as the peoples of the north salted their herring to preserve them, the anchovy has long been salted by fishermen and packers in the Mediterranean where it is a staple. While they were usually consumed fresh and either grilled or marinated, they always preserved some of their catch for later use. Before the advent of canning and refrigeration, salt was the predominant way to preserve them. Salting anchovies changes both their taste and texture. Although Europeans seem to prefer buying whole salted anchovies from their local market, salted anchovies show up in the US mainly in the form of small flat or rolled fillets packed with olive oil – like sardines. Salt-packed anchovies are sold as whole fish with heads removed; while oil packed anchovies are sold de-boned or in pieces. Oil packed fillets are ready to use, while salt packed anchovies must be de-boned and soaked to remove the excess salt.
After rinsing, salt-packed anchovies have a deep flavor with less saltiness; while oil packed anchovies are saltier due to being preserved in olive oil. In most cases they can be used interchangeably in recipes. Salt-packed anchovies can be stored covered in the refrigerator, where they will keep almost indefinitely. Salt-packed anchovies must be soaked prior for use in a recipe. There are three commonly used soaking liquids: cold water, milk or a combination of cold water and dry white wine. Whatever liquid you choose, use enough to completely cover the anchovies and soak them for approximately 30 minutes. (Many people will change the liquid after about 15 minutes.) You can soak the salt-packed anchovies before or after removing the backbone.
Anchovy paste can make an acceptable substitute for anchovies in some recipes. (Use ½ teaspoon for every anchovy called for.) Anchovies can be used in recipes as a seasoning ingredient rather than as the main ingredient. Many recipes call for one or two mashed or minced fillets that disappear into the sauce as it is cooked. There are well-known recipes where the anchovy is the main ingredient For example, in an anchovy and garlic paste that is used to spread on slices of crostini or in Bagna Cauda, an anchovy and garlic dip, that is traditional in Northern Italy. The Italian cuisines of Campania, Calabria, and Sicily often rely on anchovies for pasta dishes, such as, Spaghetti con Acciughe that includes anchovies, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and bread crumbs. Anchovies are often minced or mashed into vinaigrettes to season vegetables and salads.
Consider the health benefits of anchovies:
- Anchovies are high in Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Anchovies are also a good source of essential vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin E, Vitamin D, Calcium and Selenium.
- Anchovies are an excellent source of protein – delivering 9 grams of protein for only five anchovies.
- Due to their size and short life span, Anchovies contain lower levels of heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic,) and other environmental toxins – especially when compared to tuna and other larger fish.
2 oz Anchovy paste = 4 tablespoons = 1/4 cup
2 oz Anchovy fillets in oil = 50g = 8 to 12 Anchovies in oil = 12 drained
1 ½ oz Anchovies, drained = 40g = 8 to 10 Anchovies
1/2 teaspoon Anchovy paste = 1 Anchovy fillet
Once a tin or jar of anchovies is opened, you can store the anchovies in the refrigerator (discard the tin and store them in a sealed container) for up to two months: just make sure the fillets are covered in oil during that time to keep them fresh.
Here are some recipes where you can incorporate this tiny fish into your cooking. I prefer to purchase anchovy fillets packed in extra-virgin olive oil.
Bagna Cauda is the Italian version of fondue. Raw vegetable pieces are dipped into the hot, garlicky, anchovy-flavored oil until warm – and then eaten, catching every little garlicky drip on a fresh piece of Italian bread. It helps to have a Bagna Cauda “pot”, but a fondue dish with the Sterno flame underneath works — as does an electric wok on low.
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 12 olive oil packed anchovy fillets, minced
- 6 large garlic cloves – peeled and minced
- Cubed raw vegetables for dipping: sweet peppers, fennel, cauliflower, endive and zucchini
- Italian bread – sliced
Place the olive oil, garlic and anchovies in a skillet over low heat. Stir until the anchovies have “melted” and the mixture looks thickened. Whisk in the butter until melted, then remove the skillet from the heat and whisk again until creamy looking. Pour into a dish that can stay heated at the table — like a fondue pot, Bagna Cauda pot, or electric skillet or wok.
To serve: Dip vegetable pieces into the hot oil for a few minutes and use a bread slice to absorb the dripping oil on the way to your mouth.
Tuna Stuffed Roasted Peppers
- One 12 oz jar of roasted peppers, drained
- Two 6-ounce cans Italian tuna packed in olive oil, undrained
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and finely chopped
- 2 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, optional
- Chopped flat leaf parsley for garnish
Cut the peppers into 2-inches wide strips.
Combine tuna, lemon juice, capers and anchovies in a medium bowl.
Lay the pepper strip flat, inside facing up, and put a tablespoon of the tuna stuffing at one end.
Tightly roll up the pepper strip. Place the pepper roll-ups on a serving platter.
Grind some black pepper over the stuffed peppers and drizzle with balsamic vinegar, if using. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature.
Spaghetti con Acciughe
A classic Neapolitan dish.
- 1 pound Spaghetti or Bucatini Pasta
- 12 anchovies
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 6 large garlic cloves, minced
- Big pinch of hot, red pepper flakes or to taste
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, minced
- 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, toasted
Mince 6 of the anchovies and chop the remaining six coarsely. Set aside.
Cook pasta in plenty of salted boiling water until “al dente” – about 10 minutes.
While pasta is boiling, put olive oil, garlic, minced anchovies and chili flakes in a deep-sided frying pan or pot and saute over low heat until the anchovies are “dissolved.” Stir in the parsley and remaining anchovies and turn off the heat.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer pasta into the pan containing the anchovy sauce and toss until pasta is well coated. Add some reserved cooking water if the pasta seems dry. Put 2 tablespoons of bread crumbs aside. Add remaining bread crumbs to the pasta and toss again.
Sprinkle remaining breadcrumbs on top ot the pasta before serving.
Tomato Salad with Anchovy & Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette
- 1 head garlic
- 4 anchovies, chopped
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Tomatoes, sliced
Halve the head of garlic crosswise and wrap them in foil, cut side up. Roast in a 450°F oven until tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool, then squeeze the cloves into a medium bowl. Add the anchovies and mash them with a fork into a paste.
Whisk in chopped parsley, vinegar, fresh lemon juice, Dijon mustard, sugar and crushed red pepper flakes. Add the extra-virgin olive oil and whisk until combined. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over tomato slices.
Italian Fish Stew with Anchovy Pesto
- 1 lb cod fillets or other firm white fish fillets
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, sliced thin
- 1 28 oz container Italian plum tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup of dry white wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 8 mussels
- 8 shrimp
- 6 anchovy fillets, chopped
- 1 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 1 clove of garlic, chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
Mix the chopped plum tomatoes, tomato paste and herbs together in a mixing bowl. Set aside.
Rinse and dry the fish on paper towels and cut into 1 inch chunks.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and saute the onion, garlic and celery until soft. Reduce the temperature to low and add the fish and the tomato mixture to the saucepan. Add salt and pepper to taste and the wine.
Cook uncovered for 30 minutes or until the fish is just cooked and the liquid has reduced to a thick soupy consistency.
Add the mussels and shrimp and cook until the mussels open. Discard any that do not open.
Pound together the pesto ingredients with a pestle & mortar or process in a food processor to make a rough paste.
Remove the bay leaf and serve the fish stew in shallow bowls, topped with a tablespoon of the pesto.
Lamb Chops With Anchovies, Capers and Sage
- 6 rib lamb chops (1 1/2 pounds)
- Salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 anchovy fillets
- 3 tablespoons drained capers
- 15 sage leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- Lemon wedges, for serving.
Pat the lamb chops dry with paper towels. Season them with salt and pepper and let rest for 15 minutes.
Over medium-high heat, warm a skillet large enough to hold all the chops in one layer. Add the oil and when it shimmers, add the anchovies and capers. Cook, stirring, until the anchovies break down, about 3 minutes.
Arrange the lamb chops in the skillet and cook, without moving them, until brown, about 3 minutes. Turn them over, and add the sage leaves and red pepper flakes into the pan. Cook until the lamb reaches the desired doneness, about 2 minutes for medium-rare.
Arrange the chops on serving plates. Add the garlic to the pan and cook for 1 minute, then spoon the sauce over the lamb. Serve with the lemon wedges.
Figs Stuffed with Anchovy Tapenade
- 15 oil-cured black olives, pitted
- 2 teaspoons capers
- 1 anchovy fillet
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 12 ripe, small Mission figs
Puree olives, capers, anchovy, thyme, and olive oil together in a food processor or chop by hand.
Make a slit in the side of each fig and spoon about 1/2 teaspoon of tapenade into the fig. Pinch opening closed. Allow 3 figs per person.
- Spaghetti with olives & anchovies (andrewscookery.wordpress.com)
- Bagna Cauda – Italian for Hot Bath (mtriggs.wordpress.com)
- Spicy Pasta Puttanesca with Loads of Fresh Herbs (karistaskitchen.com)
- Anchovies: Small fish, big impact (independent.co.uk)