Tiny Fish, Big Flavor: Anchovies are a powerhouse in the kitchen

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.