Let’s talk about anchovies.
They’re not easy to like. They’re salty, they’re fishy, they’re pungent, and they’re generally not out to make friends. Given the chance, they’ll take over a dish, running roughshod (or rough-finned?) over meeker, milder flavors. A mere mention of the word prompts scrunched noses and pouts. “I don’t really…like anchovies.”
Which is a damn shame, because they’re absolutely delicious when they’re treated right.
First things first: all anchovy fillets are not created equal. If you’ve ever tasted a tiny, ragged, desiccated piece of fish that made your mouth pucker, chances are your anchovy was cheap and canned. These are the anchovies people fear, and not without cause.
Oil-packed anchovies are a whole other story. When canned or jarred in olive oil, anchovies have a subtler flavor and juicier, smoother texture. These are the non-scary beasties: meaty and briny, perfect for adding depth and complexity to a huge range of dishes. They’re a classic ingredient in Caesar dressing, olive tapenade, and puttanesca sauce, but that’s only a fraction of what they’re good for.
The really cool thing about anchovies is, if you’re sauteing them, you don’t even need to chop them up–they do the work for you. Literally. Drop a few fillets into some warm olive oil, and they’ll dissolve right before your eyes, melting into tiny flecks on the bottom of the pan. Recently, I took advantage of this fabulous property and whipped up one of the quickest, easiest pasta sauces I’ve ever made.
I originally got the idea for this sauce from the Minimalist, of course, several years ago. I tucked it away in my mind, and eventually forgot about it–until my boyfriend pulled a leftover jar of beautiful oil-packed anchovy fillets from the back of his fridge and said, “We should finish this off.” We wanted a fast, flavorful lunch, so in keeping with the original recipe, I kept the ingredients to a minimum: tomatoes, olives, basil, and a ludicrous amount of garlic. (Note: totally not a romance-killer if you eat it together. Trufax.)
The resulting sauce took a grand total of 15 minutes from start to finish. It was surprisingly refined, with clean, bright flavors and just a hint of meatiness from the anchovies. I served it with a minimal amount of pasta, letting the fresh ingredients take center stage, and the result was a light yet satisfying midday meal. I spent the next hour murmuring, “Mmmm. I’m a good cook.” (Boyfriend can corroborate–he had to listen to me.)
So there you have it. Anchovies, redeemed. No mouth-puckering ooga-booga required.
Pasta with Tomato and Anchovy Sauce (serves 4)
1/2 lb. short pasta (I used whole-wheat shells)
2 oz (56 g) anchovies packed in oil
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red chili flake
1 1/2 lb (approx.) grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup black or green olives, pitted and sliced
8-10 large basil leaves, minced or chiffonade
Olive oil for sauteing
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated parmesan for serving (optional)
Cook pasta as you usually would. (You can make the sauce while the pasta’s cooking; it’s that fast.) Ladle off about 1/2 cup of the cooking water before draining the pasta. Set aside.
In a skillet or deep-sided frying pan, warm olive oil over medium heat. Add anchovies, garlic, and red chili flake; stir, breaking up anchovies a little bit if necessary, until the garlic is golden and the anchovies have completely dissolved. Add tomatoes and olives and saute, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have given up their liquid and started to soften. Check the sauce: if it looks a little dry, drizzle in a bit of the pasta cooking water, until everything comes together in a nice saucy mess. Toss in the pasta and basil, season with salt and pepper. Serve with a sprinkling of parmesan, if you like.