1. Food
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Ingredient: Anchovies

Wonderful Wee Fishies


Dried anchovies
GYRO PHOTOGRAPHY/amanaimagesRF/Getty Images

The odds are you hate anchovies. I don't have a formal survey, but anecdotally I suspect about 80 percent of Americans do. I did. When we think anchovy we think salty, salty, salty and fishy, fishy, fishy. And usually you're right. Salt is used to cure them and they tend to have a fishy - in the worst sense of the word - flavor and, when eaten alone, they're pretty bad. Or, at least those packaged for the American market suffer from these sins. But that needn't be the case.

When my parents returned from their first trip to Spain among other gifts they brought each of their foodie children was a can of olives stuffed with anchovies. I've long been an olive lover but have also been relatively unimpressed with most stuffed olives. To me garlic-stuffed olives taste bitter, pepper-stuffed olives have an identity problem, and the textural contrasts in nut-stuffed olives don't work. But my first anchovy-stuffed olive was a revelation.

Salty, yes, but no more so than any brined olive and with a mild, insouciant flavor of the sea. During a subsequent two-week vacation in Spain these little globes were an inescapable part of our pre-dinner tapas every night. (Note there are a couple of California companies that produce anchovy-stuffed olives, but they can't compare with the Spanish imports so avoid them until you've had the real Spanish thing.)

But the truth is I'd discovered the magic of anchovies years earlier. I'd bought a tube of anchovy paste when some recipe called for it. A while later something (no idea what) prompted me to add some of the paste to a marinara sauce. It was the best red sauce I'd ever made. So I started playing with anchovy paste and then anchovies as well as doing some academic research.

It turns out that preserved anchovies are high in a fifth taste that wasn't identified until 1908 by a Japanese scientist. For years western scientists thought there were only four "tastes" four essential compounds that we had dedicated sensors (taste buds) to discern: sweet, salt, bitter and sour. But Kikunae Ikeda established we could also directly detect glutamic acids and that these correspond to what we in the west think of a savory flavors.

Meat, tomatoes, parmesan cheese and mushrooms are also high in these glutamic compounds.

In my recipe for beef stew I add a tablespoon of tomato paste and a teaspoon of anchovy paste to the broth. Most people can't directly taste either the tomato or anchovy, but tried side by side with the same recipe without them one seems bland while the other is dark, rich, and savory.

There are a few other recipes here on Cooking for Two that call for anchovy filets. In these cases you will get a taste of the sea, but a mild one. Don’t be afraid, take it slow and easy and try adding a bit of paste or even minced anchovies to savory dishes. You'll be glad you did.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.