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Tiny Fish, Big Flavor: Anchovies are a powerhouse in the kitchen
By Dee Ryan | Photo by Carmen Troesser
Posted On: 06/01/2010   

I love food and I love to cook, so I’ll try most things, but some childhood prejudices just won’t shake loose. I didn’t eat mayonnaise for almost 15 years because I got sick at a friend’s house after being served a braunschweiger and mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder Bread. You would expect an 8-year-old to blame the weird-smelling pink pasty stuff, but nope, I blamed the mayo and refused to go near it until I became an adult. I considered myself most fortunate that my family was not fond of Brussels sprouts, spinach or beets, so I rarely had to face “gross” food at mealtimes. And anchovies? Well, anchovies were a punch line, right? No one really ate anchovies, besides, perhaps, old men on The Hill.

But as a home cook, I began to discover how deliciously sweet roasted beets were and how, when cooked with garlic and pancetta, Brussels sprouts were sublime.

I first tried anchovies at Franco. They were not hairy, as I’d feared; they were not slimy. They were oceany; they were yummy. And with a little research, I found out they are good for you – chock-full of omega-3 oils, calcium and vitamin D. Then, out of the blue, a friend said, “The secret to my spaghetti sauce is anchovies – just melt a couple into the pan. No one ever knows they are there, but they make all the difference in the world.” This friend can cook circles around almost anyone, so I bought some anchovies. Nothing fancy, just a modest little tin – the kind you’d expect to see at the back of the pantry of your Aunt Sophie, the one who has all those cats.

So I made spaghetti sauce, and it was good, with a mellow depth missing from any other sauce I had ever made. And I made tapenade, with briny kalamata olives and capers and lemon zest and anchovies, and it also was good.

I found myself with a couple of fillets left in the tin – and I was already out of ideas. And then I found bagna cauda, a warm, rustic dip from northwestern Italy that’s made from anchovies, garlic and olive oil and into which vegetables are dipped: cardoons, peppers, artichokes, leeks, potatoes and, of course, bread. It’s Italian fondue, if you will.

My 9- and 12-year-old girls, however, were not going to board that train, no matter how I sold it. (Clearly they take after my younger self.) Not without changes.

But when your starting point is garlic and anchovies, how do you create a kid-pleaser? The lemon zest had added a layer of sweet intensity to the tapenade the day before … Enter citrus; lemon and orange zest and juice and some chopped basil added a sweetness and brightness that paired perfectly with the tilapia fillets I had. As a sauce, it goes well with any basic white fish – perch, barramundi – that needs a little something. It’s also quite versatile; just throw in different fresh herbs (tarragon and fennel are great with citrus) and try it on other types of fish or on chicken.

Tilapia With Citrus Bagna Cauda
Adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis


2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. olive oil, divided
3 anchovy fillets, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. fresh orange juice
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. orange zest
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
Salt to taste
6 6-oz. skinless tilapia fillets
Pepper to taste


• In a medium saucepan over moderate heat, melt the butter and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil together, stirring frequently.
• Add the anchovies and stir until they dissolve, about 2 to 3 minutes, then stir in the garlic. Remove from the heat.
• Stir in the orange and lemon juices, the zest and the basil. Season with salt if desired.
• Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet over moderate heat.
• Season the fish with salt and pepper and cook until the fish is opaque in the center, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the fish to a platter.
• Drizzle the bagna cauda sauce over the fish and serve.

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