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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Salty Fish

There's a lot more to anchovies than salty little fish. We're all familiar with those salt bombs that stick to the top of carryout pizza boxes (well, if you order anchovies). That type might be on the lower rung of the anchovy food chain, but they're great mixed into salad dressings or sauces for that special umami thing. That said, not all anchovies are stacked and packed in razor sharp flip-top cans. Salt and pressure are the keys to curing anchovies. After stacking alternating layers of anchovies and salt into drums, the anchovies are pressed with weights, and left to cure. The salt draws out the moisture and preserves the fish. From that stage the anchovies are either canned in oil, jarred in oil,  or packed in salt. I usually opt for oil-packed jarred anchovies. Whether swimming in a plain olive oil bath or jarred with garlic and red chilis, they usually come vertically packed or rolled up like little fiddlehead ferns. They're easy to work with and the residual flavored oil is an added bonus. Win. Salt-packed anchovies are a different beast. Prized for their cleaner taste, the salt-packed varieties have to be filleted, cleaned, and rinsed before use. I really don't care how they prepared, packed, curled, or stacked, I'm an absolute fool for anchovies.

Several years ago, while lunching with Michael at an area restaurant, I discovered marinated white anchovies or boquerones en vinagre (fresh anchovy fillets marinated in vinegar and olive oil). The pristine fish fillets arrived unannounced as a garnish on an overworked and heavy handed  salad nicoise. I ravaged them with abandon, dangling the slightly pickled darlings over my tongue before slurping them down like wet ramen noodles. The slippery-skinned and mild tasting unsalted fish changed the anchovy game.

To this day, when I'm lucky enough to run across them, I order white anchovies straight up. No salad needed. On really fabulous days, Michael brings them home. Cue the music.

Simple Flatbread with Baby Arugula, White Anchovies, and Stuff.
Me and my anchovies. A lesson in self indulgence.
I wasn't gunning to make pizza, foccacia, or true flatbread. I guess I was shooting for something like a big cracker. I sifted 2 cups of all purpose flour with a pinch of salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda before adding 1/2 cup chilled water. After forming the dough into a loose ball, I kneaded it for 5 minutes, floured a large wooden board, and rolled the dough into a very thin misshapen oblong. Hell, I didn't care what it looked like. I brushed the dough with olive oil, scattered thinly sliced onions over the top,and slid it into a 400 degree oven to bake for 35 minutes. When the cracker-bread browned and the onions charred, I pulled the crust from the oven to cool.

I tossed baby arugula with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, flaked sea salt, and cracked black pepper. After covering the baked cracker with lettuce, I tumbled slivered red bell peppers and sliced kumquats into the leaves before finishing with butterflied white anchovies. Booya.

So simple. Like glammed up canned sardines on crackers (one of my father's favorite things), the unlikely combination worked. Bitter arugula. Sweet/tart kumquats. Charred onions. Cracker crust. White anchovies. Perfect.

Game changer.                                                          


Greg Rice said...

What a delightful article Tom... Robb and I both love anchovies and I am happy to see them finally getting some culinary respect. I will have to give the flatbread a try as well sounds fabulous...

Tom said...

Yeah, they get a bad rap. Have you tried white anchovies? Love them. A bit more perishable, unless you're an anchovy head.