In Defense of Anchovies: A Wildly Unpopular Post

I hate fishy-fish. The fishiest fish I'll make a case for eating is a good thick sheet of lox on an everything bagel with cream cheese. But in general, if it's fishy-fish, you can count me out. I really want to be that person who eats kippers on toast, or likes nothing better than a plate of grilled sardines with lemon. Maybe I will be someday. In addition to a pronounced, fishy flavor, I cannot stand bones. I have never gotten on with the idea that fish bones are something to be crunched and savored; I do not want a throat full of pins for dinner. Conversely, if you try to remove every bone from most delicate fish you are left with nothing but a pile of flakes and bits which might do just fine for a taco, but isn't what I wanted to pay $35 for. I make an exception for branzino, because the thrill of eating an entire fish myself more than makes up for having to gently lift the meat from the long, needlelike rib bones.

When I was little I often went fishing with my dad on the weekends. I'd be absolutely horrified (but proud) when we caught a croaker or a striped bass. Proud, because we had caught something! (and it croaked!) ...horrified, because my dad would want to go directly home to fry them and I'd be forced to suffer through a plate of very fishy, bony flakes. I could get down with some fish sticks but no amount of convincing could change my mind about eating our catch. It was not sentimentality - it was pure loathing. I have now grown up to love a lot of fish and seafood, though I'm still not game for the strongest flavors. I love fish that tastes like the ocean, not like...well...scales.

Thus it surprises us all to find I'm such a staunch supporter of the humble anchovy. Intensely salty, fishy, and full of the tiniest pin-bones, even I am not sure how I came to defend it. I still think anchovies on pizza are beyond me, but my world has expanded to include these often-hated little guys.
I think it started with a couple of well-placed Bon Appetit Foodcasts discussing what to do with anchovies and strengthened when I bought Alison Roman's Nothing Fancy and got lectured about why anchovies don't deserve the hate. And while I'm not the person to avidly eat anchovies for a snack, I now consider them a staple in my pantry: a dang easy way to add umami to any dish that needs extra punch.
I kind of hate how informed "umami" sounds - like I'm trying to use an elevated word "just because". But we've talked about it before: umami is that distinct flavor and feel that you get from a good stock, or meat, or perfectly cooked mushrooms, or the MSG in Doritos. It's the flavor of substance, I suppose. You taste umami and you feel more full and satisfied. Anchovies (like miso, or mushroom powder) are an umami hero. The salt breaks down their tiny bones so nothing remains but a soft paste. And they're not pricey; a few anchovy fillets go a long way. I like the Cento brand just fine, available in tins at most grocery stores for little more than a couple dollars. I've heard Ortiz are better, but I find no troubles with Cento. The rumor is that glass-jar anchovies are superior, but this I cannot verify. The jar would certainly be helpful for storing leftovers since you rarely use an entire jar. However, I prefer to freeze the remainder of my anchovies so that they have longer staying-power, thawing only what I plan to use.

If you're still holding out because you're afraid of the bare thought of eating an anchovy (I get it, truly), can we talk for a second about the fact that if you enjoy a good meal at a restaurant, you've probably been eating anchovies all along and never knew it? I'm serious. Anchovies are the ninja of the fish world. They're the base of most fish sauces, which are totally necessary components of good Asian cooking and a primary flavor in dishes like pho. They're a huge aspect of pasta puttanesca, and can even be found in innocent places like devilled eggs. Just as mind-blowing as any of these, Serious Eats informs the casual reader that anchovies are also a massive component of Worcestershire sauce.  For real. Your holiday Chex Mix just got anchovy'd.

"Great, Rache. So you want us to cook with anchovies. Cool. But how?"

By now you know me: I'll never recommend you to buy something without options for how to use that product. To be honest, I had a jar of anchovies sitting in my pantry for, like, a year and a half before I really learned how to use anchovies, and I don't want that for you. So here are three very practical places where anchovies do their best work:

  • Pasta Sauce: I melt anchovies with the olive oil and aromatics for the base of pasta sauces (they literally melt down into a paste) and let them do the heavy lifting. Be sure to taste your sauce as you build it, because the anchovies will add saltiness. Always taste before seasoning! This is especially important in places where you're adding salty ingredients such as anchovies, soy sauce, or parmesan. There's a point of no return with salt, and it's sad. 
  • Caesar Dressing: Y'all, I will not quit about Bon Appetit's recipe for Caesar Salad Roast Chicken. I made it for dinner (as stated in the last blog post) and it was so good that I was thinking about how I got to have those leftovers for lunch from the absolute moment I had dinner clear through to lunchtime the following day. The chicken! The dressing! The schmaltzy croutons! *chef's kiss* The dressing is the clear champion of this dish, however. It's built off a reserved bit of the chicken marinade, so I'm going to tinker with the recipe to create a huge batch of the dressing itself, because we deserve this. You in for me to share the recipe when I've adjusted it? Good. Because I see how happy your salad will be when we're done here.
  • Spreads: Whether you want to pound them into butter to make a salty spread for open-faced sandwiches, or want to go more under the radar and make a good olive tapenade, you're going to find that anchovies are there to help. A little fillet or two and you're set with big flavor from small effort.

I know this post is going to come with a lot of backlash because there are a large swathe of people who just can't with the idea of anchovies. I've been there, and it's okay. You're wrong, but we love you.
But to the rest of us? The small remnant who feel that maybe, just maybe we've been too harsh to judge these ubiquitous fish? I dare you to start cooking with a judicious use of anchovy fillets...Serve all that deep, umami-laden food to the haters you know and stand back smiling. I promise: they'll never ever know. You have now become a ninja.

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