Staff Favorites: Anchovies
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
It's not terribly original to stick Washington pizza joint 2 Amys on your list of favorite restaurants. But it makes my list for an original reason. Chef Peter Pastan loves anchovies.
They're in the salsa verde on the deviled eggs and the dressing for the escarole salad. They're served at the bar with bread and butter. And they're on my go-to puttanesca pie along with broccoli rabe, garlic and chili flakes.
"I'm a total freak about anchovies," said Pastan, who once went on an "anchovy vacation" to a fermented-fish factory in northern Spain. "Anchovies add this incredible, rich essence of the ocean and this kind of meatiness" to everything.
While chefs should be scribbling valentines to this oft-maligned fish, most keep their love a secret. (They aren't too keen to tell you how many dishes get a little fish sauce, either.) "Do not scare the diners" is one of the cardinal chef rules. Plus, anchovies make their food taste better than yours. Chefs don't want you to know that the difference between a good dish and a great one comes down to opening a can.
I've long sought out anchovies in restaurants such as 2 Amys. But I confess that until recently, I still had a minor fear of using them at home. I started slowly. First, I slipped one into a pot of tomato sauce. Next, I mashed some to a paste and slipped it under the skin of a roasting chicken. In both dishes, they added an oomph that guests couldn't quite put their finger on. All they knew was that the food tasted terrific.
It wasn't long before changing people's opinions about anchovies became a bit of a culinary game. I'd add sauteed, minced anchovy to a side dish of Swiss chard. (Fantastic!) I'd make anchovy mayonnaise to serve with potato wedges. (What is in this dip?) But it wasn't until recently that I stumbled onto a recipe in the "Red Cat Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, 2006) in which anchovies are the star.
Chef Jimmy Bradley's Bucatini with Anchovies and Peppers is good enough for a dinner party. But it's also an ideal weeknight meal. Almost everything -- pasta, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, hot peppers and anchovies -- is a pantry staple. So all you need to pick up are bell peppers and fresh parsley.
First, mince 12 anchovies (a full can!) and melt them in a half-cup of good olive oil with lots of garlic. Add colorful, thinly sliced peppers and spicy pepperoncini, and toss until they just begin to wilt. When the pasta is done, mix the noodles into the sauce and top it all with more bread crumbs, grated cheese and parsley.
The result is a hearty pasta with no hint of fishiness. I think it could lure even the most intense anchovy skeptic to the cult of smelly little fish.
And if it doesn't work? "People are scared of all sorts of weird things," said chef Pastan. "They need to get over it."