For the Love of Anchovies

I am a lifelong anchovy lover, and could tell you possibly boring stories about enjoying them from one end of the earth to the other. (Plus, as much as any fish can be, they’re sustainable.) Thus days like yesterday (the day before I wrote this, not the actual yesterday), where I eat them twice, are not common but not surprising either.

I know anchovies are not to everyone’s taste, but that’s because non-lovers only know them as salt-bombs on top of bad pizza. Real anchovies, the good stuff, regardless of their culture of origin, whether packed in olive oil or salt or just dried - are unbelievable.

Lunch was Korean style. I have never been able to get enough of the finger-food version of Korean dried, glazed anchovies (called, I’m pretty sure, myulchi bokkeum), usually served as one of the array of banchan - side dishes - that precedes or accompanies the main meal. I’ve never had myulchi as a main course, with rice, but I figured it must exist and, besides, what I do in the privacy of my own home is my business. I could eat coconut cake for supper if I wanted to (and I have).

The thing is, to a reasonably experienced cook and someone with a knowledge of essential Korean flavorings, one who’s eaten Korean food for a long time, the preparation is pretty transparent. What I lacked were dried anchovies. Those (and about fifty other somewhat esoteric ingredients, including the coveted dried persimmons) I got at the H-Mart near the George Washington Bridge (where my partner and I were teased by two cashiers, I think for being wannabes or at least Whyte People Cooking K Food). They’re sizable, cleaned (which saves a little trouble), and not super-dry; quite pliable, in fact, “fresh” enough to refrigerate. Fresh enough to munch on.

Dried anchovies sizzling away with ginger, chile, and garlic

They need no soaking. I put some ginger in a pan with some chile (chopped, the long red kind you get at, you got it, H-Mart) and garlic and peanut oil and, a minute later, a handful of the anchovies. These I tossed around merrily until they browned, a couple of minutes. Then: a splash of water (you could use sake, sure), soy sauce, honey (you could use sugar, but I have this awesome honey from Cuba and was thinking about some kind of stupid cross-cultural joke that I’ll spare you), boiled that down to a not-quite-glaze because I wanted this to be saucy. Then sesame seeds, sesame, oil, done. Served over whole barley, just because. Awesome lunch. If you don’t like this, then you really don’t like anchovies, but you will like this. I can almost guarantee.

Lunch

Dinner, same day, no kidding: Took my virtual personal jet to southern Italy and ground, not too finely (that's important; one might say "coarsely")—in the food processor because I’m “modern"—a half-inch thick slice of awesome whole wheat bread, pretty stale. Toasted those in olive oil. Set them aside. Wiped out the pan after it cooled.

The best anchovies from Gustiamo

Anchovies, cleaned and filleted

Dissected three salted anchovies (check out the must-see TV below) from our friends at Gustiamo (note empty jar; I would’ve used two, but I’m not going to let that last one languish). See how pretty they look once you spend a minute cleaning them. (At that point you could soak them in good olive oil and really enjoy some fine plain anchovies.) Chopped them roughly; they disintegrate with a little heat, so that’s an easy job. Put those in a pan with oil, garlic, chile (Korean chile! Fusion cuisine!), cooked that a minute, and not much longer: just until the garlic colored and the anchovies fell apart.

Anchovies, garlic, chile, olive oil: doesn't get much better than this

Cooked my pasta until it was still quite firm but just about ready to eat (you have to taste it, continually, to get it right), and then scooped out a little of that water. Drained the pasta, tossed it with the oil mixture, and added the breadcrumbs and just enough of the pasta water to moisten (the breadcrumbs will absorb some of that). Wished I had some parsley, got over that, and devoured that thing.

Dinner

For a simple dish, this second one is extravagant in its use of anchovies; I included three, for one serving. You could use one or even two fewer, but it is an assaultive, boldly flavored pasta, really a knock-your-socks-off kind of thing, not “refined” at all (thankfully), especially if you use lots of chile and garlic as well as the anchovies. The bread crumbs add an unusual crunch that’s enjoyable beyond what you’d think. A reminder: Keep them coarse.

Nothing I can think of eating today will make it as exciting as yesterday was, though I might have to hit 32nd Street for dinner.

— Mark

HOW TO HANDLE ANCHOVIES LIKE AN ITALIAN


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