Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Anchovies

I pride myself on eating almost anything; there are few things I won't touch, and they include commonly disliked foods like organ meats and brains. But one food block I can't seem to get past is anchovies. Whenever I order a Greek or Caesar salad in a restaurant, I ask the chef to hold off, and I never cook with them. To me they've always tasted a little too fishy. And they're hairy, too. Yuck.

But my pride got the better of me this week, when, thanks to Mark Bittman's NYT video on the pleasures of anchovies, I decided to bite the bullet. Bittman did make me feel better about my phobia:

"There are places in the world where anchovies are revered, the Mediterranean chief among them. The little fish, usually salted and preserved in oil, is enormously popular on every continent except our own. There are two reasons so many Americans aren’t wild about anchovies. One is that we typically buy those of inferior quality. The other is that anchovies are strong flavored and undeniably fishy. Those of us who can’t get enough of them see these characteristics as assets. You probably will, too, if you buy the right anchovies and cook them in this familiar pasta sauce whose other main ingredients are garlic, chilies and tomatoes."

And I noted that Marcella Hazan, in The Classic Italian Cookbook, writes, "there is no good kitchen in Italy that gets along entirely without anchovies." That was enough to put me over the edge. I needed to do this.

A recipe for Pasta with Garlic, Anchovies and Tomatoes accompanied Bittman's video, and I made it last night. I'll admit I went a bit heavy on the garlic and tomatoes, and used two anchovies instead of 20 (I was making a half recipe! I realize that should've meant 10 anchovies, but baby steps, okay?). Everything about the recipe was right up my alley: the entire thing took less than 20 minutes, and entailed cooking the garlic and a dried chili pepper in olive oil; adding the suspicious and slightly--ahem--hairy anchovies; then adding halved grape tomatoes--all while the penne was cooking in a pot of boiling water. The anchovies kind of melt in the hot oil, and when the pasta's cooked, you add the sauce and top with chopped parsely.

The verdict? I didn't have seconds, but I wiped my plate clean. The pasta had a deeper flavor than it would've sans anchovies, a sort of rich saltiness that kosher salt could never add. It was pretty good. And now I have a jar of anchovies in my fridge. While I may not be ready to throw them on top of a salad, I'll definitely use them in cooking again.--S

Pasta with Garlic, Anchovies and Tomatoes

1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
10 garlic cloves, peeled
2 or 3 dried chilies, optional
20 anchovy fillets, more or less
2 c halved cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound cut pasta, like penne
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat; a minute later, add garlic and chilies, if using. Cook garlic so it bubbles gently. When it is lightly browned all over, add anchovies. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about a minute, until anchovies begin to fall apart, then add tomatoes. Adjust heat so tomatoes bubble nicely, and cook until mixture becomes saucy, about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.

2. Meanwhile, cook pasta until tender but not mushy. When it is done, drain it, reserving a little cooking water to thin sauce if necessary. Serve pasta with sauce and parsley.

Yield: 3 to 6 servings.
Recipe courtesy of Mark Bittman

1 comment:

SarahHutch said...

Can you please come to China and cook for me? I'm starving over here!