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The Almighty Anchovy
A Path to Anchovy Anlightenment
- Article 

by Eliza Ward

Behold the humble anchovy! A superfood to some, a culinary delight to some others, a fish to fear for still others. To the hungry the anchovy is considered in two disparate ways: reverence or revulsion. For those of you that already love these little swimming critters, we applaud ye. Besides being a nutritional powerhouse, the anchovy packs a powerful taste punch. For those wayward anchovy haters, we offer a path to cross the culinary chasm to anchovy enlightenment.

This tiny little fish - or fishes that is, since there are 139 different species in the family Engraulidae - 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 heartily incorporated them into their respective cuisines. In Southeast Asia and many Mediterranean countries, the anchovy is central to almost every table. While they are usually consumed fresh and either grilled or marinated, they always preserve some of the 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, making them a truly versatile and valuable ingredient. Most of the anchovy catches from the Cantabrian Sea and across the northern coast of Spain to the Bay of Biscay end up being salted or brined. Although Europeans seem to prefer bulk purchases of whole salted anchovies from their local market, salted anchovies show up in this country mainly in the form of small flat or rolled anchovy fillets packed with olive oil – like sardines. Salt packed anchovies are preferred by some, but are harder to find, and can generally only be found in this country in a few specialty stores.

Salt Packed vs Olive Oil Packed Anchovies

After the anchovies have been “cured” in salt, they are packed in either salt or brine, or in olive oil – which “liquid” is chosen impacts the processing of the fish. Salt-packed anchovies are sold as whole fish with heads removed; where as oil packed anchovies are sold as already de-boned fillets or pieces. So, oil packed fillets are ready to use, while salt packed anchovies must be de-boned and soaked to remove the excess salt.

Believe it or not, after rinsing the salt-packed anchovies have a deep flavor with less saltiness; while oil packed anchovies are (actually) saltier and have a bit more complexity due to further curing in the olive oil. But, in most cases they can be used interchangeably. Salt-packed anchovies can be kept in their salt or brine, and stored covered in the refrigerator where they will keep almost indefinitely.

Preparing salt-packed anchovies for use in a recipe is quite easy; you just open it up with your hands and pull one side at a time away from the backbone all the way down to the tail. There are three commonly used soaking liquids: cold water, milk, or a combination of cold water and dry white wine. In any case, use enough liquid to completely cover the anchovies and soak for approximately 30 minutes. (Many people will change the liquid after about 15 minutes.) You can soak the salt-packed anchovies either before or after filleting them.

The Versatile Anchovy – 101 Anchovy Recipes

Anchovies can be used in a whole host of dishes beyond pizza and Caesar Salad; think seasoning, think flavoring, think condiment. With a click of a mouse, you can easily find more than 101 recipes that include this prince of little fish. Most recipes call for one or two mashed or minced fillets that disappear into the dish as it's cooked, only to show up as a wonderful background flavor; that subtle but undeniably delicious and mysterious “je ne sais quoi.” But there are a few famous recipes where the anchovy is featured front and center. For example, Anchoiade, an anchovy and garlic paste, is often found atop crusts of toasted bread in Provence, France. Or Bagna Cauda, an anchovy and garlic dip, that is traditional in Northern Italy.

As it turns out, anchovy is the secret ingredient to many dishes throughout the Mediterranean. The cuisines of Campania, Calabria, and Sicily all seem to rely heavily on the little fish. Spaghetti con Acciughe is a great example of a traditional recipe that lets the anchovy shine with just a little help from some olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and bread crumbs. Or, for a more northern example of a similar dish, try Bigoli in Salsa alla Veneziana - not for the anchovy faint-at-heart. Both are so easy to make, it is essentially complete by the time the pasta is done cooking. In both cases, anchovy fillets are mashed into olive oil that has been heated. The continued heat causes the anchovy to melt creating a wonderfully aromatic liquid that coats the pasta and, in the first case, breadcrumbs. As you might guess though, the simplicity of these dishes requires that you use only the highest quality ingredients all around: olive oil, pasta, garlic, and especially anchovies.

Anchovies are often minced or mashed into vinaigrettes and sauces as well. Anchovy Vinaigrette is another wonderful and easy way to get some of that anchovy magic in your life, and add a little zing to your fresh greens. Made by whisking together anchovy, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, chopped parsley, and black pepper; just pour some over Belgian endive or radicchio. Yum!

Patricia Wells has a similar dressing in her book, The Provence Cook Book (Harper Collins, 2004) but she uses good red wine vinegar instead of lemon juice. Or try the now-infamous Green Goddess Dressing. Originally created at the Palace Hotel in the 1920s in honor of William Archer, the then famous star of the hit Broadway show, "The Green Goddess."

But don't stop with pasta or salads; consider it for marinades and sauces as well – or anything you feel needs a little extra oomph.

Anchovies Pack a Powerful Health Punch
(The Heath Benefits of Anchovies)

Still not convinced of the divine providence of Anchovies? 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.

So, as anchovy devotees around the world will tell you, incorporating this tiny fish into your everyday cooking life will pay truly big dividends.

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Keywords: anchovy, anchovies, health benefits, salt packed, oil packed, article, Eliza Ward, vinaigrette, green goddess dressing, bagna cauda, recipe

(c), 2021