Anchovies are the number one umami-rich food and guess what? There are all kinds of ways to incorporate anchovies into your recipes – as the protagonist or as an almost imperceptible magic ingredient. Michele and I talk all about the anchovy, its 2000 year plus culinary history and how it's used in cuisine.
All about anchovies
Anchovies are a delicious, nutritious little white fish worthy of incorporating into your diet. There are about 140 species of anchovies. Anchovies are a small common foraged fish and a major food source for all predatory fish. They are filter feeders and travel around in large schools with their mouths open to ingest plankton, their major source of nutrition. Anchovies prefer temperate waters hence their prevalence in the Mediterranean. Anchovies reproduce by spawning and have a lifespan of up to four years. They can vary quite a bit in size ranging anywhere from 2 to 40 cm long; the European, or Italian, anchovy is about 10 cm or 4 inches long. You can find anchovies in California but they are used primarily as bait for recreational fishing.
Nutrition: why we should all eat more anchovies
If you've read Michael Pollan's wonderful book Food Rules: an Eater's Manual rule 35 talks about anchovies. Pollan says don't overlook the little oily fishes. Anchovies are one of the most sustainable fish to eat. They are rich in wonderful omega-3 fats, full of protein and, contrary to fish at the top of the food chain, contain almost no mercury. There are lots of ways to use anchovies: fresh, canned, smoked, dried or salted.
Throughout history anchovies have been used to make a fish sauce condiment better known as colatura di alici and, in Roman times, garum. Back in Roman times this fish sauce was also reduced and evaporated to make muria, a food condiment.
Anchovies: the #1 umami bomb worldwide
Umami is often called the fifth taste: all the wonderful glutamate-rich foods we have in our diet that enhance and elevate flavor. Umami adds a unique richness and savoriness to dishes and a great to always have on hand in your pantry.
Anchovies contain more glutamates than any other food and are a must-have pantry item.
Just one or two anchovy fillets or a little squirt of anchovy paste is enough to help savory dishes explode with flavor: pasta dishes, soups, Caesar salad and, believe it or not, anchovies are a key flavor ingredient in beloved Worcestershire sauce. If you love anchovies you've undoubtedly had them on pizza but there are so many other ways to incorporate anchovy umami bombs into your recipes. Fish sauce made with anchovies, colatura di alici, has become a popular flavor enhancer. Use just the tiniest bit in recipes to boost flavor or go for the full colatura di alici flavor and toss a plate of spaghetti in some of this wonderful fish sauce.
Anchovies throughout history
Pliny the Elder talked about anchovies and explained how umami-rich anchovy fish sauce, or garum, was made using the entire anchovy, fish guts included, along with other similar small fish.
Leonardo da Vinci, who cultivated his own winery in the Milan area, also loved anchovies. His grocery lists were recovered and anchovies are on the list.
The best known ancient Roman cookbook by Apicius also features anchovies in a number of the recipes.
St. Joseph's day on March 19 is a popular festivity in Sicilian American and Italian American communities. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of Sicily and one of the dishes people eat on this feast day is spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs.
When you have the chance to travel to Sicily and Palermo don't miss the iconic Anchovy Museum in Palermo. You can purchase different anchovy products right at the museum plus other anchovy items like anchovy ceramics.
Excavations are ongoing in Pompeii and new things are always uncovered. Traces of the ancient Roman fish sauce garum were found in Pompeii which helped to confirm that the Vesuvius eruption occurred in August.
The anchovy comeback
Chefs, food writers and recipe developers are now exploring and using umami-rich anchovies and colatura di alici in many dishes. Culinarian and food writer Ruth Reichl attributes the anchovy comeback in part due to the availability of higher quality anchovy products. Her favorite are Spanish cured anchovies and she always has a jar on hand in her refrigerator. She loves them so much that sometimes she walks by her fridge and grabs one from the jar and slurps it up… creamy, flavorful and delicious! Take a look at her recent article in Town and Country.
Italian Michelin star chef Cristina Bowerman uses umami-rich anchovies in lots of her creative and unusual recipes.
The top 10 must try umami-rich anchovy recipes
The playing field for umami-rich anchovy recipes is unlimited but here are my top 10 must-try anchovy recipes.
First, how to clean fresh anchovies
Anchovies are incredibly easy to clean and here's a step-by-step guide.
Hold the anchovy in your hand, belly facing up.
Gently pull off the head and discard, then run your thumb along the length of the belly. The anchovy opens right up.
Next, starting at the head end of the anchovy lift out the bone and remove, along with the tail.
Rinse the anchovy under cool running water.
Now the fresh anchovies are ready to use.
Three delicious ways to use fresh anchovies
- Anchovy tomato sauce: Anchovies cook in an instant so if you'd like to boost the flavor of a tomato sauce just toss in a few fresh anchovies after the sauce is done. The heat of the sauce is enough to cook the anchovy and it's a great way to boost a basic tomato sauce for pasta.
3. Anchovy ceviche
Once you've cleaned your fresh anchovies lay them in one layer on a large platter, skin-side down.
Cover the anchovies with white wine vinegar and let sit until the anchovies turn white which indicates they've been cooked through by the acidity of the vinegar.
Drain off the white wine vinegar and squirt the anchovies with abundant fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice.
Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and add your favorite flavoring.
I often use peperoncino - dried chili pepper flakes.
You can also use minced fresh herbs like thyme, oregano or even a hint of mint.
Serve as an appetizer with fresh crusty bread or crackers.
More anchovy recipes using cured anchovies
7. Steamed cauliflower florettes with a balsamic caper & anchovy dressing
8. Michele Di Pietro's Funky Fettuccine - brand new recipe and you'll find it right here!
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