Sorry anchovies, it’s not you, it’s me. You’re just too intensely fishy for me. I don’t like rejecting foods. Unlike some eaters, I always try something before deciding I don’t like it. I had tried anchovies multiple times and I just couldn’t make it work.
However, as is often true, I was wrong, and I have Marcella Hazan to thank for setting me straight. In her book Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she waxes rhapsodic about the little fish for an entire page in the “Fundamentals” section, saying that no other ingredient in Italian cooking “produces a headier flavor.” She also warns readers against buying cheap anchovies, saying that these “mealy, salt-drenched” things are what give anchovies a bad name.
Ah, so that’s it then, I’d just never had good anchovies. This rang true for me because the same thing had happened with olives. Growing up in 1970s upstate New York the only olives I ever had came from a can, so I thought I didn’t like olives. Then I moved to New York City and discovered real olives in their myriad flavors and colors. Maybe the same was true of anchovies?
Marcella recommends whole anchovies packed in salt, which you can easily fillet yourself at home. I decided to find the best anchovies I could and go from there. A very informative article by Ari Weinzweig on The Atlantic web site, recommended Ortiz anchovies from northern Spain as being of the highest quality. He also extolled the superiority of whole fish over fillets, saying they were larger and meatier.
I found some Ortiz anchovies at a local gourmet store but almost dropped them on the floor when I found out the price. Even the manager was surprised, it being a new item. I’m not a cheapskate when it comes to food, but they were three times the price of the regular kind. Also, they appeared to be fillets instead of whole fish and were packed in olive oil.
A few days later, I was exploring the newly opened Bklyn Larder and spied a large jar of salt packed whole anchovies from an Italian company called Nettuno. This is exactly what Marcella recommends and better yet, the price per gram was the same as the regular ones I used to buy.
Soon thereafter, I was pondering what to make for dinner using the last of our weekly farmers’ market haul, a large head of broccoli. I stood in front of the cookbook shelves pulling out volumes at random looking for broccoli in the index. Behold, Marcella to the rescue with Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce for pasta. Perfect, I could use our broccoli and test out the new anchovies.
Marcella’s Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce is similar to a Bagna Càuda in that the anchovies are gently dissolved in olive oil which is warmed over a double boiler. This is then mixed with boiled broccoli and some crushed red pepper flakes (she actually calls for chopped hot red chili peppers but I was in a hurry).
The result is a sauce with a very light body but an incredibly rich — and not too fishy! — flavor. The anchovies rumble at the bottom like timpani in the orchestra, providing the bass note to the whole dish.
Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce for Pasta
adapted from Marcella Hazan
To fillet your own salt packed anchovies: Wash the salt off the anchovies, then pull the fish apart lengthwise into two parts (they come apart very easily). Next grab the spine at the tail end and lift it away from the flesh. All the bones come with it in one piece and you are left with 2 anchovy fillets. Done!
1 large bunch of broccoli, about 1 pound
1/3 cup olive oil
6 anchovy fillets (preferably from whole anchovies packed in salt), chopped fine
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 pound of short pasta such as orecchiette or fusilli
1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
Chop off about 1/2 inch of the tough woody end of the broccoli and discard. Cut the broccoli florets away from the stalks. Peel away the tough outer layer of the stalks with a vegetable peeler. Put both the stalks and the florets in a pot of boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes or until just tender to the fork.
Drain the broccoli, break the florets into bite-sized pieces and chop the stalks in a large dice.
At this point put the salted water on to boil for your pasta and cook it to the firmness you prefer.
As your pasta cooks, fill a large saucepan about 1/4 full with water and bring to a simmer. Put the olive oil in a medium sauce pan and heat it briefly over a low burner. Then take the medium saucepan and put it inside the large saucepan, double boiler style. Add the anchovies to the oil. Mash the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they dissolve completely in the olive oil.
Remove the medium saucepan from the double boiler and place it on a medium-low burner. Add the cooked broccoli florets, chopped stalks and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook for 4-5 minutes stirring to coat well.
When your pasta is cooked, drain it and toss with the broccoli anchovy sauce, then add the grated parmigiano-reggiano, toss again and serve.