Anchovies. Love ’em or loathe ’em, these salty, umami-infused flavour bombs add punch to all sorts of dishes: pizzas, pastas, sauces, dressings, braises, tarts, spreads... the list goes on. Anchovies are an important ingredient in Italian, Southern French and Spanish kitchens, which is understandable as they’re a major Mediterranean catch. Interestingly, there are 144 anchovy species worldwide and these range in size from 2 cm to 40 cm. While they can be eaten fresh, and are often used by fishermen for bait, it’s in their preserved guise that most of us know the oily fish best.
Anchovies are processed by salt curing and there are two quite different ways of doing this. The first is by gutting the fish then layering them with salt in an open can. The anchovies are weighted and left for up to 2 months to cure, during which time they compress and excess fluid is removed. Once cured, the cans are sealed and no oil is added.
Salted anchovies – larger and meatier than their oil-preserved cousins – only last for about 5 days once a can is opened, but they can be bought loose from good delis. The fish need to be rinsed, as they are still well-coated with salt. They also need to have their bones removed as they’re not filleted during processing. To store, pop them in a jar and cover well with olive oil, then refrigerate.
Arguably more familiar are the small, brownish anchovies that are preserved in oil. These can readily be bought from any supermarket or deli. Unlike their salted cousins, these anchovies are submerged, fresh and gutted, in a salty brine and cured for 2 months before repeated rinsing. They are then filleted, packed into jars and covered in oil before sealing. The best quality ones are preserved in olive oil while cheaper brands use vegetable oil. Either way they’re processed, it’s the curing that gives anchovies their characteristically strong flavour.
The fresh fish, however, taste relatively mild. This is also the case for boquerones, or “white anchovies”, which take their name from the pale colour they retain after processing. White anchovies are pickled in vinegar, or a mix of vinegar and oil, rather than salt, and possess a milder, fresher, sweeter flavour than salted anchovies. They’re mainly used whole and as they come (i.e. not cooked further) as a meze or tapa, either on their own or with vegetables or salad.
The recipes below were tested using anchovies in oil, but you could also use rinsed, salted anchovies instead. There’s a big size and flavour variation between brands so you may need to add more, or fewer, anchovies than suggested here. Just follow your anchovy-loving tastebuds.
1. Pasta with tomato, almonds and anchovies
Combine ½ cup roasted salted almonds, 6 anchovies and 3 cloves of garlic in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Cook 400 g spaghetti, drain well then toss in a large bowl with the almond mixture, 800 g chopped ripe tomatoes, 1 cup grated parmesan, 80 ml extra-virgin olive oil and a small handful of chopped basil. Season well then serve.
2. Anchovy-garlic butter
Combine 8-10 anchovy fillets, 1 tbsp lemon juice and 3 cloves of garlic in a small food processor and process until a fine paste forms – alternatively use a mortar and pestle. Combine in a bowl with 120 g softened butter, season well with black pepper. Place on a piece of plastic wrap. Form into a log shape then wrap securely in the plastic wrap, keeping a neat shape and twisting the ends to secure. Refrigerate until firm. Serve sliced, with grilled steak or lamb cutlets.
This recipe is incredibly versatile – use it to top pasta, pizza or crostini. The long cooking melds everything together and the resulting “sauce” tastes rich, mellow and nothing at all like blanched broccoli. You can add drained canned white beans, flaked canned tuna and/or dried chili flakes to taste. If you’re serving this on pasta, simmer it for less time so it’s a bit more “wet” and serve it with tons of grated pecorino.
4. Quick puttanesca
Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a frying pan over medium. Add 4 cloves chopped garlic, 6 chopped anchovies and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until softened. Add 2 x 400 g cans chopped tomatoes, 1 cup chopped green olives, ¼ cup drained capers and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until thickened. Stir in a handful of chopped basil then serve over grilled tuna or ocean trout.
5. Anchovy deviled eggs
Peel 6 hard boiled eggs and cut in half lengthways. Remove the yolks then mash them in a bowl with 3 tsp chopped capers, 4 chopped anchovies, 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest, 2 tbsp mayonnaise, 2½ tsp Dijon mustard and a large pinch of cayenne pepper. Season to taste then pipe or spoon mixture back into the egg halves. Decorate each with thin strips of anchovy.
Deep-frying isn’t as terrifying as it may sound and if the thought of cooking in so much vegetable oil freaks you out, do it with olive oil instead. Using a thermometer to check the oil temperature is the safest and most accurate way to go here – don’t use too shallow a saucepan for frying as you don’t want the oil to work its way over the top of the pan. Throw a few handfuls of grated parmesan into the batter mixture if you like, and note that the best way to spread this over the cauliflower pieces is by using your hands. Messy, but true. Here's the recipe.
7. Anchovy crumbs
Combine 2 cups coarse fresh sourdough or ciabatta crumbs, 10 chopped anchovies, 4 cloves of chopped garlic, 2 tbsp chopped oregano and 100 ml olive oil on an oven tray. Mix to combine well then spread the mixture in an even layer. Bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring often, until deep golden. Serve scattered over grilled eggplant, grilled zucchini, roasted asparagus or roasted cauliflower.
There are two ways to cook fresh squid - for a very short time or long and slow. This recipe opts to go the latter route, delivering deep flavours and extremely tender squid. Frozen peas make everything easier here, but by all means use fresh podded peas if you have access to some. Podded, peeled broad beans are also a delicious alternative. Spoon a little tapenade on top of each serve, if you like.
9. White beans with anchovies and jamon
Soak 350 g dried white beans overnight. Drain well then cook with 2 bayleaves in plenty of simmering water for 1 hour or until tender. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Whisk 3 tbsp sherry vinegar, 80 ml olive oil, 6 chopped anchovies and a small handful coriander and toss through beans. Season well then serve warm with boiled eggs, baguette and slices of jamon.
You can use cavalo nero, cima di rapa or silverbeet instead of the kale here, being sure to cook with the stems of the vegetable as well as the leaves. This dough should be soft and may be a touch sticky, but resist any temptation to add more flour when you knead it – it’s easiest to knead it in a large stainless steel bowl or using the dough hook of a stand mixer, if you have one.
Photography, styling and food preparation by china squirrel.
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