There is a category of foods for adults that I call “stink foods.” These are the foods that people appreciate after they’ve eschewed the plain pasta of their picky eater days and developed a more mature palate. I’m talking about foods like eye-watering onions; soft, blue-veined cheese; and pungent garlic.
Or tiny, oil-packed, smelly little fish. Like the oh-so-humble anchovy.
But while most of us recognize the delicious depth that blue cheese adds to a salad, or that onion and garlic add to…well, almost anything, people are turned off by anchovies’ fishy salt blast. OK, I admit that “fishy salt blast” sounds pretty unappetizing. But to those who have eaten anchovies and decided that they’re terrible, I say: You’re doing it wrong, you fools.
You might think I’m going to tell you to eat anchovies fresh. I’m not, although that’s a fine idea. They’re filled with that wonderful Omega 3 fatty acid. Plus, they’re a good sustainable seafood choice — we’re supposed to eat tiny fish, and most of anchovy varieties average around 5 inches in length. Plus, they’re found around the world — there are varieties of anchovies in all the warm oceans. Some anchovies are better than others, though — the Peruvian ones are used primarily for fish meal, while the Mediterranean anchovies are considered some of the most delicious for human consumption. So, sure — if you want to eat fresh anchovies, go to your fishmonger, pick up some of the silvery little guys, and put ’em on the grill.
But I’m here to defend the much-maligned preserved anchovy.
Here’s the problem — preserved anchovies shouldn’t be treated like seafood. Instead, think of them like garlic — they’re a flavorful part of a larger recipe, not a primary element. It’s dumb that we don’t realize this — anchovies have been imparting that delicious, deep umami flavor into recipes for literally thousands of years. The Romans had garum, also known as liquamen — a salty, fermented fish sauce that was made by leaving anchovies (or mackerel or sprats) in a large earthenware container with salt, and then placing it in sun for, oh…two or three months.
If you think that garum sounds like one of those hideous throwback foods that best buried with Caesar, though, you should know that we still eat basically the same thing. That savory flavor that many of us appreciate in Thai food comes from nam pla, or fish sauce — which is typically made by fermenting anchovies and salt over several months. Yeah, if you were to drink fish sauce (please don’t…unless someone double-dog dares you), it’d be a glass of pungent stank that would probably reek off you in cartoon-style smell lines for days. But added in moderation to a recipe, it provides a delicious depth. In an interview with NPR, Bridget Lancaster from America’s Test Kitchen explains why. Anchovies contain a compound called a nucleotide, which, combined with salt, is basically just flavor awesomeness (“flavor awesomeness” is a scientific term, right?):
…a nucleotide plus a glutamate basically is a savory explosion. It really amps up the flavor of the glutamates 20, 30, even perhaps 40 times. So if you’re tasting beef on its own, or soy sauce, or any of those glutamate-rich ingredients, your tongue will say, wow, that’s very beefy.
Historically, it wasn’t just the ancient Romans and the Thais who understood the flavor of the anchovy. European cookbooks from the 1700s call for salt-preserved anchovy fillets again and again to punch up sauces, meat dishes, and more — in fact, 1723’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary; or; The Accopmpish’d Housewife’s Companion mentions the anchovy as an ingredient 96 times.
And the anchovy wasn’t just considered vital in the kitchen — it also has a long history as a medicine. While I can’t tell you that anchovies will cure what ails you (unless your ailment is needing to eat something delicious), I can say that the Romans used garum for both medicine and tastiness, and one of the recipes I included below is for an anchovy sandwich that is supposed to “strengthen the stomach.” 1747’s Pharmacopoeia Universalis describes the anchovies’ supposed health properties:
Anchovies pickled with Salt, and kept in Barrels, and the whole Fifh, as well as its Pickle are used in Medicine; the Fifh pickled is apply’d like Herrings to the Soles of the Feet; and both their Pickles ferve for the fame Purpofes. It helps Digestion, and fortifies the Stomach with its volatile and faline Principles, which caufe a gentle and moderate Heat in that Part, and difperfe and attenuate the Aliments that are contained therein.
And if you’re curious as to why the herring are put on the soles of the feet, here’s another entry from the same book (“febrile” means fever, BTW):
Salted Herrings are fometimes apply’d to the Soles of the Feet in Fevers with an Intent to derive the Humours from the Head and mitigate the febrile Heat.
So, great news — not only do salted anchovies impart an awesome flavor, they can also draw the fever from your head. Who needs ibuprofen?
You’d think that providing an inexpensive flavor blast and the quack medicine bonus would be enough to have the tinned fish flying off the shelves today. But despite our obsession with umami, anchovies aren’t in the modern recipe cannon yet. They’re not as sexy and rare as that other umami delivery device, the truffle; and the low-grade ‘chovies that are served whole on pizzas don’t do much to help the little fish’s cause. The recipe for the classic Caesar calls for an anchovy in the dressing (although you might be surprised to know that it doesn’t actually call for the filets on the salad), but otherwise, you don’t see the anchovy that often.
I implore you, though — even if you think you hate them, try something with anchovies. It doesn’t even need to be one of the recipes below. Try adding them to your regular salad dressings or meat sauces, and enjoy the depth of flavor these little fish add.
And hey, if you don’t like the way the anchovies taste, don’t worry — you can always stick the rest of them to the bottoms of your feet.
Anchovy and Butter
This simple recipe lets the anchovy flavor shine, and it’s great for serving with bread at a dinner party. For mine, I used about a tablespoon of white wine. After mixing the ingredients, I poured the butter in a ramekin and put it in the fridge to solidify.
Melt the anchovies in a little wine or vinegar without allowing them to boil which throws off the flavour work them into melted butter or any other plain sauce
From Domestic Economy, and Cookery, for Rich and Poor, by a Lady, 1827
The recipe is very simple, but hey, as the recipe says — “these sandwiches are recommended before all others.” If you want to bump up the anchovy flavor, add some fillets to the inside of the sandwich. If that seems too salty for you, you can also soak the anchovy filets in cold water before using.
These sandwiches are recommended before all others for strengthening the stomach and giving appetite and a much greater strengthener than wine or spirits.
Cut very nice thin slices of bread crust and cover it with anchovy butter and lay over another thin slice press together and cut it in squares.
From Domestic Economy, and Cookery, for Rich and Poor, by a Lady, 1827
A Very Good Sauce for Any Roasted Meat
It’s not a lie; this is indeed a very good sauce. I used half a cup of wine, and to replicate the Seville orange, I juiced half of a navel orange and half of a lime — although you might be able to find a bitter Seville orange at the farmers market.
Take an Anchovy, wafh it very clean, and put to it a Glafs of red Wine, a little ftrong Broth or Gravy, fome Nutmeg, one Shallot fliced, and the Juice of a Seville Orange ; ftew thefe together a little and pour it to the Gravy that runs from your Meat.
From The House-keeper’s Pocket-book, and Compleat Family Cook, 1760