"Of all the ingredients used in Italian cooking, none produces headier flavor than anchovies. … Chopped anchovy dissolving into the cooking juices of a roast divests itself of its explicit identity while it contributes to the meat’s depth of taste.” –Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
If your sole exposure to anchovies has been seeing their floppy bodies desecrating an “otherwise perfectly good” pizza, hold tight a sec: You haven’t been eating them at their best. (You wouldn’t eat raw garlic, right?) As the Queen of Italian Cookery goes on to explain, anchovies are most delightful when they are smashed and allowed to complement something else.
Anchovies are major players in Spanish, Italian, French and Greek cuisine. Hazan’s cookbook is one of many exhorting the flexibility of the silvery little fish. Anchovies and white wine can sauce a fillet of halibut. Or dissolve into a sauce of butter and capers for veal scaloppine. Or garnish beef patties. It’s clear Hazan thinks the sky’s the limit.
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She’s not alone. We’ve witnessed an anchovy comeback over the last few years. Chef Seamus Mullen’s cookbook Hero Food devoted a whole chapter to their charms, lauding their health benefits—they’re high in protein, vitamins D and E, calcium, and omega-3s—as he laces them on toasts and flatbreads. Chef Jody Williams, at her French restaurant Buvette, layers anchovies with salted butter on warm toasts. And chef Alex Raij, of Spanish restaurants La Vara and Txikito, loves them with cheese, on garlic bread with tomato, and even in pasta.
A good primer on buying anchovies is here, but in a nutshell: Anchovies vary wildly in quality, from the big fat fillets and whole fish to the little oily tins you can get at the supermarket. I’d suggest you buy both. Get to know them. And don’t forget to store them in the refrigerator, as they’re perishable. Although those $2 tins from brands such as Cento and Roland are cheap, they’re delicious—especially when you break them down, mingle them with a fat like butter or olive oil, and introduce them to meat or vegetables.
This is the flavor you know and love from Caesar salad, after all: that booming saltiness and nod to the sea. All that salt needs is a luxe mouthfeel to mellow it and balance it, and then you’re off to the races. The best cooking trick I’ve picked up over the last year—a year of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Italian and French food—is using anchovies to flavor chicken. It’s been a revelation on the level of bacon and seafood together.
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After going gaga for the bite of butter, anchovies and bread at Buvette, I was determined to eat more anchovies. I tried the excellent garlic-butter-anchovy-chicken recipe in Alison Roman’s book Dining In. Incredible. But perhaps my favorite application is Melissa Clark’s chicken recipe from The New York Times. Bright capers, sautéed garlic, and lemon juice combine with plenty of anchovies, olive oil, and tender chicken thighs. The anchovies break down over high heat, eliminating their finicky texture. It was so good—bright, salty, and satisfying—I actually began cursing, aloud and alone, at my lunch plate. Later, I found myself sneaking into the fridge to break off cold pieces of chicken for myself.
As Clark emailed Health when asked how the inspiration for the recipe hit her, “It's one of my favorites. It's actually a riff on the classic Italian lamb chops sautéed with anchovies and capers.” She used chicken instead of lamb to make it “more economical and accessible.”
Of the enduring charms of the little fish, she writes, “Put anchovies in EVERYTHING!” She even has them folded into baked Brie in her next cookbook. Now that’s anchovy commitment.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.