Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Case for Anchovies

Here in the American heartland, it’s rare to meet someone who will admit to eating anchovies. Occasionally a brave soul will tell me they like anchovies, and my estimation of their taste and character shoots up immediately. The anchovy’s reputation is damaged to such an extent that I suspect many people who say they don’t like anchovies have never knowingly tried them, which is sad because the anchovy has so many redeeming characteristics.

Perhaps this state of affairs shouldn’t be surprising. The anchovy is a small fish that spoils quickly after being caught, so supplies of the fresh article rarely make it to middle America. Unlike Italy, Spain and other lucky coastal countries, the U.S. has no inherent tradition of anchovy consumption. Our exposure is limited to the salt-packed variety or, more commonly, anchovies tinned in olive oil and salt. The bold flavor of canned anchovies can be a turn-off for squeamish palates (not mine), but including them in sauces, where their assertiveness has a chance to mingle and mellow, can be magical.

Despite their bad reputation, anchovies still have a place in the American diet. Of course many pizza restaurants offer anchovies as a topping, a tradition that I find encouraging (someone besides me must be ordering them!). Anchovies are a primary ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, and part of many restaurant Caesar Salads.

Ingredients for Puttanesca Sauce.

If you’re game to get more anchovies into your life, the best place to start is with Italian food. The Italians seem to have a particular affinity for anchovies, and include them as a background ingredient in many pasta sauces and meat dishes. Anchovies have a remarkable ability to add depth to sauces while remaining hard to identify as an ingredient (they nearly completely dissolve when heated in a sauce). Served one of these dishes at a fine Italian restaurant, you would never suspect you were eating anchovies. I’ve included a recipe for one of my favorite Italian pasta sauces, that contains anchovies, below.

If you’re not yet swayed to the cause, you should know that anchovies are nutritional powerhouses. They’re high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and a good source of protein, calcium, selenium, iron, phosphorus, niacin, and vitamins D and E. They also contain fewer contaminants than more popular fish like tuna and salmon. Canned and salt-packed anchovies are of course high in salt, which should be taken into account when including them in any dish. You can reduce the salt by soaking them in cool water for several minutes, which doesn’t seem to diminish the flavor of the fish itself.

From an environmental standpoint, anchovies are one of the best fishes on the market. The Environmental Defense Fund rates the European anchovy–the type most commonly eaten in the U.S.–as an “Eco-Best Fish: Safe for the environment–enjoy often!” Stocks of the European anchovy are plentiful, and they’re primarily caught via methods that aren’t damaging to the environment or other marine life.

The following recipe for Puttanesca Sauce is adapted from The Joy of Cooking. It’s a bold tomato sauce with garlic, red chili pepper, black olives, capers, and of course, anchovies. It’s simple to prepare and enough for about a pound of pasta. Enjoy!


Puttanesca Sauce

1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 dried red chili pepper
1 c. pitted and chopped oil-cured black olives or Kalamata olives
6 anchovy fillets soaked in cool water for 5 minutes and drained
1 t. dried oregano
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, chopped
3 T. minced fresh parsley
2 T. capers, drained
Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, then add garlic and chili. Cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, then add olives, anchovies and oregano. Cook for 30 seconds, then stir in tomatoes. Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Stir in parsley and capers. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, and serve with pasta of your choice.

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