Alici in wonderland

Matt O'Leary
March 26, 2009

It's very infrequently that this column will focus on one ingredient only, and rarer still that the named ingredient will be quite as humble and tiny as the one we're going to focus on now, but something has been missing in my life recently, and I hope to begin the to fill this gap by writing about it: the ingredient that I haven't eaten enough of in the last month, and which is currently occupying the top five or so (in various remixes and cover versions) of the ‘must eat now' hit parade. You see, I've been back in the UK for a couple of weeks and have found it hard to walk into the supermarket and pick up a jar of what may well be the nicest Italian foodstuff: the anchovy.

 

Yes, the miniscule, inexpensive fish known variously as acciughe or alice depending on where you-or your anchovies-are coming from. And not even the still-vital creature that darts around in massive shoals in the sea: the cleaned, filleted, brined and then salted remnants of the fish, which are subsequently layered in tins or other containers, or soaked in oil and put in jars, or mashed into a paste and forced into a tube. As anchovies are related to the herring, it won't come as any surprise that they, like their Nordic-associated cousins, can be prepared fresh, fried and served with potatoes and parsley, but the worldwide consumption of the fish comes from their abundance in certain areas, such as the Mediterranean and the need to be able to transport them worldwide. Hence, why we tend to encounter them in their longer-lasting forms.

 

When starting to think about which flavours go particularly well with anchovies we're often confounded by the sheer versatility of options open to us. The fish contain plenty of the elusive ‘fifth flavour' that, over the past few years, has been discussed increasingly in food writing. Known as ‘umami', it's best described as a sort of meaty, savoury taste that makes food yummy and more-ish: the pleasantly rounded smack of taste in the centre of the mouth when you come across a bite of the pizza slice that a rogue anchovy has melted into. As a result, anchovy is often simply used to enhance the flavours of other dominant ingredients. You can add them to any tomato-based sauce-not only puttanesca-for a bit of extra oomph, and many English recipes for roasted meat call for the introduction of anchovies to the dish, too. Many now hold that you should tuck slivers of the fish into small cuts evenly dotted across the surface of a fatty piece of meat, like leg of lamb, for example.

While we'd caution that there is generally the remnant of a slightly fishy taste in this method (it's not entirely suitable for anyone who hates the ingredient, for example), it adds an unusual savoury depth to dishes, particularly those which involve parsley and garlic. Be warned, however, that once the fillets disappear into any sauces, marinades or roasts, if you've bought anchovy fillets from older, larger fishes, your guests might draw their presence to your attention by having to spend an hour or so picking the tiny, bristle-like bones out of their gums afterwards. Many a good meal has been ruined by ‘anchovy hair.'

 

Their texture favours a slow cook, and if you layer them throughout gratin dishes made from root vegetables and dairy with sautéed onions, you will also reap the benefits of the deep, savoury flavour. Another way to enjoy them, though, is by pounding them to a paste and either mixing them with flavours that suit them well-wine, reduced so that the alcohol has gone from the dish, or grape juice, like the Romans used to make the most of, or herbs like parsley and garlic, dairy produce and egg-based sauces like mayonnaise, tomatoes, sweet roasted peppers-or simply mixing them into softened butter. These pastes can be enjoyed on toasted bread. Or, if you're feeling really indulgent, you can roll anchovy-flavoured butter (which has perhaps been mixed with some finely chopped shallots, tomato puree, and a small amount of tarragon) into a cylinder and chill it for a while; when it's firm, cut this stick of flavoured butter into thick coins and melt them onto medium-rare rib-eye steak. This, served with a baked potato and a big salad and enjoyed in your garden, says ‘summer's nearly here' more than a cartload of barbequed goods ever could.

 

The recipe of the fortnight here is, as you've probably guessed, the fish that we've spent the last few hundred words discussing. But for this issue's recipe I have decided to go against the norm and dedicate some time to the Caesar salad which, despite sharing the named of any number of extremely famous Italians, is normally identified as having been dreamed up in Mexico (albeit by an Italian-born chef). The reason for this? Anchovies lie so deep in the dish that the fishy taste is just about indistinguishable, but if you take them out you'll instantly be able to spot the difference. Try it: you'll see what we mean.

 

 

Recipe of the fortnight: CAESAR SALAD

 

NB: This is one version of the Caesar salad. Many exist. Those, like this one, which are made with raw egg yolks, which can contain the Salmonella enteritidis bacterium, should be avoided by pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone who has an impaired immune system.

 

Croutons, cheese and leaves:

3 or 4 slices of bread, crusts removed and cubed

A good pour of olive oil

A good pinch of salt and pepper

The hearts of two romaine lettuces, chopped 150g Grana Padano

cheese, either grated or cut into slivers with a potato peeler

 

Dressing:

1 large egg, in its shell

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, if you can get it: if not, add an

extra anchovy and a dash of balsamic vinegar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice (it needs to be fresh)

1 small, very fresh garlic clove (older cloves make the dressing bitter), crushed

4 anchovy fillets, chopped extremely finely

1 tsp mustard

100ml lightly flavoured oil

 

Roll the bread cubes around in a good lug of olive oil, some salt and pepper, making sure they are well coated. Bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Set aside and allow to cool.

 

Bring a pan of water to the boil. Put in the egg (in its shell). After 45 seconds, remove from the heat and transfer the egg to a bowl of cold water. (This is known as ‘coddling' the egg.)

 

Add the Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, anchovy and mustard to a large mixing bowl. Crack in the cool egg and whisk everything. Now, begin to whisk, and add the oil very slowly, whisking all the time: start off with one drop and a good whisk, then a couple more, and so on. (If you add the oil too quickly, the mixture will ‘crack' and fail to emulsify without some serious repair work, in which case, you might as well just go out and buy a jar of mayonnaise.) The mixture will thicken and turn white-ish and opaque. You may need to remove any clinging bits of anchovy from the whisk and stir them in well at the end.

 

Toss the ripped-up leaves of romaine in this bowl with the dressing and the Grana Padano. Serve.

 

more articles

Comments