Making the case for an underappreciated but full-of-flavor ingredient
By Casey Barber, CNN
Among foods that spark a strong reaction, anchovies are at the top of the food chain.
Whether they’re adored or abhorred, it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion about these small silvery swimmers.
Food writer Alison Roman wants the haters to think differently. Anchovies are more versatile than most people think and deserve to be approached with an open mind, according to Roman.
She might be biased — anchovies are one of her all-time favorite foods — but she has a strategy to change cooks’ minds.
“They’re more of a condiment than an ingredient,” Roman said. “To cook with them, you don’t need to eat them whole.” She incorporates anchovies into many of her dishes in the same way that she would add garlic, herbs or other flavorful aromatics. “Most of the time when I’m eating (anchovies), I can’t even see them.”
Even if you think your taste buds will rebel if you try an anchovy, your brain and heart will be happier if you do. “Anchovies are a small but mighty fish,” said Michelle Dudash, registered dietitian, nutritionist and author of “The Low-Carb Mediterranean Cookbook.”
“They’re packed with the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which are important for brain, cardiovascular and skin health,” she added. Anchovies are on par with salmon and tuna as one of the fish with the highest amounts of omega-3s per serving, and are a good source of protein, niacin and vitamin B12.
Following Roman’s lead of using anchovies as one of many elements in a dish instead of as the spotlight ingredient, cooks who want to incorporate anchovies into meals “can start small,” Roman suggested. “They don’t have to dump a whole jar into their salad.”
Here are three ways Roman likes to introduce anchovies to the wary but curious. Ready to change your “anchoview”? Read on.
Anchovies as a snack
Move over, ranch dressing — there’s another dip in town. Bagna cauda, the Italian dipping sauce made from anchovies, garlic, butter and olive oil, is traditionally served with crudités as an appetizer.
Roman loves using bagna cauda as a vehicle to introduce unsuspecting dinner guests to anchovies because it hits the taste trifecta of “salty, buttery, garlicky” flavors. “It’s mostly about garlic and vegetables,” Roman said. In addition to the traditional accompaniment of raw, crunchy vegetables, she likes to include steamed artichoke hearts and tender cooked potato slices.
Bagna cauda is also an answer to the ever-present question about anchovies: What about the bones? “They are so tiny, they mostly all melt” and dissolve into the dish when heat is applied, Roman said. “They’re not going to choke you.”
“High-quality anchovies shouldn’t have many bones,” she added, and they should not be noticeable like they would be in larger fish, such as a salmon fillet. If you happen to see many bones in your anchovies, “spring for a more expensive tin,” Roman said.
Anchovies in salad dressing
If the presence of whole anchovies resting atop a bed of romaine in a Caesar salad has been historically too much to handle, Roman’s Caesar-adjacent salad will be a refreshing revelation.
Roman likes to pair bitter greens from the chicory family, such as radicchio, with a dressing that can stand up to their strong flavors. “I put anchovies in my salads all the time,” she said, but when hidden in the dressing, they add body and nuance without overpowering any of the other ingredients with which they’re paired.
Her preferred dressing blends finely chopped anchovies and capers with lemon, whole grain or Dijon mustard, and good quality olive oil. “It’s anchovy-heavy but more about the mustard and the garlic,” Roman explained, which she finds “meatier and saltier and more interesting” than the usual Caesar dressing.
Anchovies in pasta
Finally, the same strategy of dissolving the umami flavors of anchovies in a sauce comes into play when making a rich and comforting pasta. Based on the Venetian dish bigoli in salsa, in which long strands of thick bigoli pasta are tossed with slow-simmered onions and anchovies, Roman’s version can be used with any long, thin pasta.
Roman adds whole anchovies and chopped dried chili pepper to a skillet of sliced onions, garlic and fennel caramelized in olive oil. The whole fillets might look intimidating, but as with the bagna cauda, the anchovies melt and dissolve as the sauce simmers, leaving only a rich and meaty undertone. Finishing the dish with freshly squeezed lemon juice and parsley brightens up the intense sauce.
A free-form pasta sauce such as this lets you adjust the flavor balance based on what you like best. If you love lemon, squeeze more on. If fennel isn’t your favorite, use more onions instead. If you like it spicy? Amp it up with more chili pepper. “Gauge your own personal preferences,” Roman recommended.
When buying anchovies
When choosing a tin or jar of anchovies, Roman said to make sure the anchovies are oil-packed, salt-cured anchovy fillets, not brined, pickled or whole anchovies. The former is the most common style of jarred or canned anchovies on the market, but it always pays to double-check the label.
Second, “always try a bunch of brands. They really are all different,” Roman said. Though the ingredients in each container should be the same — anchovies, salt and olive oil — the fillets will vary in saltiness, taste and texture. “Ortiz and Cento are available nationally,” she said, and many other brands are available in brick-and-mortar and online specialty food stores.
One note on the salt-curing: “The only downside of anchovies is the sodium,” Dudash noted, since they are packed in salt during the curing process. “If you are concerned about your sodium intake or if you simply prefer less salty food, briefly rinse the anchovies and pat dry with a paper towel” before using them.
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Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.