Anchovies: Small fish, big impact

They are the secret ingredient that will transform your cooking

What is the most important fish in the kitchen? Salmon, tuna and cod may immediately spring to mind but a strong case can be made for a relative of the herring family that rarely grows above 15cm in length. Though anchovies are mainly found in the Mediterranean, a few brave the colder water of the North Atlantic. In 2007, a huge shoal appeared in Devon with small boats landing 30 tons a day. Continental buyers immediately cornered the lot, paying £2,000 per tonne.

As with most of our fish exports, this was a terrible shame. Sweet and easily filleted, fresh anchovies are one of the sea's greatest treats. If you see them on a fish stall – and they are at their best in the winter months – snap them up immediately. They are easily filleted by inserting the tip of a knife under the backbone and pulling. The head should come off with the vertebrae, leaving you with two neat fillets. Fried in butter with a squeeze of lemon, they make a sensational snack.

The British are, however, familiar with cured anchovies. They crop up in everything from pizzas and egg mayonnaise sandwiches to anchovy toast and Worcestershire sauce (the recipe originated in India). Chefs love the way that they add a rich piquancy – a mixture of salt and the protein flavour known as umami – to dishes. Any general cookbook worth its salt will contain several anchovy recipes. Remarkably, tinned anchovies are all filleted by hand. I once saw a long, dark room in Collioure, southern France, where a coven of black-clad women sat at a long table filleting a mountain of the local catch (reputed to be the best in the world). All cured anchovies are salted for a period before being preserved in either oil or salt. The tiny fillets in olive oil sold in the familiar small tins are fine for cooking purposes, though if you want to serve whole fillets as a nibble it is best to buy the larger Spanish fillets sold by Waitrose and Sainsbury's or, best of all, the Ortiz brand sold by Brindisa.

With pasta

A host of pasta sauces include anchovies to produce sensational comfort food. Top of the list for me is spaghettini alla puttanesca. It is alleged to have sustained Neapolitan ladies of the night (puttana means prostitute), though it has also been asserted that the name came from a late-night request made to an Ischia restaurateur in the Fifties: "Make any kind of rubbish" (puttanata). Fry two chopped cloves of garlic in the olive oil from a tin of anchovy fillets until soft. Add finely-chopped anchovies,

20 stoned Kalamata olives and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Fry for a few minutes. Stir in two tins of chopped plum tomatoes and simmer for 45 minutes. Boil 250g of pasta, then drain, mix with the sauce and serve.

A close rival is the classic broccoli and anchovy sauce for pasta. Simmer two minced garlic cloves and six chopped anchovy fillets for four minutes in 50ml of olive oil. Add a grilled red pepper (skinned and cut into strips) and 250g broccoli florets (pre-boil for two minutes in salty water) and simmer the sauce for another five minutes. Mix with 250g of fresh-boiled penne and serve. Another late-night favourite is pasta with anchovy and red onion. In a large pan, fry a thinly sliced red onion over a low heat for 10 minutes until it is soft and slightly caramelised. Add one tin of anchovy fillets, drained and finely chopped. Boil 250g spaghettini until al dente, then drain and mix. Serve with a fresh grating of parmesan. It is hard to imagine anything tastier that can be created so quickly.

On toast

The saline crunch of anchovies on toast makes the perfect savoury snack. Mark Hix says you should do no more than lay anchovy fillets on buttered fingers of toast – though you need to use good bread, preferably sourdough, and top-quality anchovies.

For bruschetta, fry chopped garlic, anchovies and capers with a kilo of chopped fresh tomatoes for one hour until reduced to a thick sauce. Spread on fresh-toasted ciabatta slices and scatter with torn basil leaves.

In her book, The Italian Cookery Course (Kyle Cathie, £30), Katie Caldesi suggests a Sicilian panini. Slice a crusty loaf horizontally, make criss-cross diagonal slashes over the soft parts, pour on some olive oil and lay on little pieces of anchovy. Press the pieces together, open them up again and add sliced tomatoes and chopped olives. Add more oil and seasoning, plus mozarella and basil, close, slice and serve.

Like Welsh rabbit, Scotch woodcock is a jokey misnomer. Mash eight anchovy fillets with 150g unsalted butter and spread on four thick slices of toast. Beat two egg yolks with 150ml double cream plus salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne pepper and heat gently, stirring constantly until it thickens. Pour over the anchovy toast and serve. Alternatively, an anchovy-powered Welsh rarebit from Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie is subtle and satisfying. Mash four anchovy fillets into 40g of butter and spread on toast. Pile thin slices of Caerphilly cheese on the toast, splat on some Worcestershire sauce and grill until gold and bubbling.

In salads

The hugely enjoyable salad Niçoise – tomatoes, boiled eggs, boiled green beans, chopped anchovy fillets, tinned tuna, artichoke hearts, black olives, cucumber, basil, spring onion, olive oil and seasoning ("but never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato", wrote Jacques Médecin in his assertive work Cuisine Niçoise) – is just the best-known of numerous salads perked up by anchovies. Richard Corrigan of Bentley's Seafood Bar & Grill uses them in panzanella, the Italian bread salad. Unusually, he toasts the bread before mixing with tomato, cucumber, chopped anchovy fillets, capers, thin-sliced red onions (these should first be blanched in boiling water) and basil. Dress with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper.

Bagna cauda is the "hot bath" invented by the Piedmontese as a piquant dip for crunchy crudités – sticks of carrot, cucumber, celery and peppers. Put three cloves of garlic in a pan with milk and simmer for 10 minutes until they soften. Drain a tin of anchovies and heat in olive oil and a knob of butter until they begin to melt. Mix garlic and anchovies in a food processor with a little of the milk. Keeping the motor going, add 100ml of olive oil in a steady trickle and a knob of butter.

Bagna cauda is traditionally served in a raised terracotta bowl that incorporates a candle but you can also heat it very gently on the hob (the sauce will separate if it becomes too hot). It will usually stay warm enough for the duration of the dip.

With meat

Cured anchovy imparts a rich savour to meat without a hint of fishiness. Spiking leg of lamb with anchovies seems to have originated in Languedoc, where the fish are cured. For an average-sized leg, you will need two tins of anchovies. Make 12 deep incisions into the leg and fill each with half an anchovy, one-third of a garlic clove and a sprig of rosemary. Any remaining anchovies should be mixed with softened butter and spread over the skin of the leg with black pepper. Place the lamb in a roasting pan and sprinkle over a glass of white wine. Roast for 15 minutes at 220C and a further hour at 180C.

In her new book How I Cook, Skye Gyngell recommends anchovy butter sauce for roast chicken. Just before the chicken is served, gently heat a pan containing 12 anchovy fillets, two cloves of chopped garlic, chilli flakes, chopped rosemary leaves and the zest of one lemon. When the anchovies start to dissolve, add 200g unsalted butter cut into cubes. Spoon some of the anchovy butter over the chicken before carving. Serve the rest in a jug to accompany mashed potatoes.

A pat of anchovy butter is a traditional accompaniment for steak. Drain a tin of anchovies and whizz in a food processor with 100g of softened unsalted butter. Scrape out the result and form into a cylinder on a sheet of clingfilm. Wrap and chill for two hours. Cut into wheels to serve with the meat.

With vegetables

A speciality of northern Italy, red pepper with anchovies can be served warm or cold as a light snack or part of antipasti. Mince and fry three cloves of garlic in olive oil until soft, then add six chopped ripe tomatoes and sauté for 20 minutes. Slice four red peppers in two and deseed. Put one tablespoon of the garlic and tomato mix in each half pepper and top with an anchovy fillet and some basil leaves. Place on baking tray and cook in oven at 180C for 40 minutes.

Quite which Jansson was immortalised in the Swedish anchovy and potato dish known as Jansson's Temptation remains a mystery. But the meal is certainly as seductive as the name implies, especially for supper on a cold night. The dish works well with standard anchovies but it was originally made with the somewhat sweeter Swedish anchovies, which are actually marinaded sprat fillets. But where can you get such a rarity? Ever heard of a little shop called Ikea? You'll need about six potatoes (preferably red-skinned) sliced into pencil-sized chips, two thin-sliced onions, two tins of anchovies and 400ml whipping cream. Butter a shallow oval dish and layer successively with onions, anchovies and potatoes. Press the layers so they are fairly firm. Add the cream and the liquor from one of the anchovy tins. Bake at 190C for one hour.

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