It’s easy to get into a happy little rut in your kitchen. You buy the same ingredients, and make the same meals day after day, because familiarity and routine are comforting. Anything new or unusual is viewed with suspicion and distrust, like when the pit boss sends a new dealer to a hot blackjack table. Getting out of your comfort zone when you’re cooking is important though. I’m not saying you have to start eating crickets, chicken feet, and other exotic foods. Just incorporating one new ingredient into your diet can help to open up new, exciting culinary vistas. It’s important for your health to have as varied a diet as possible too.
So let’s discuss an ingredient you can add to your weekly diet that is high in vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and adds a ton of flavour to any dish it’s in. That’s right, it’s anchovies! (Hey wait, where are you going? Come back!) It’s funny how the second you mention anchovies, people make the same face you do when you find that mangled dead bird your cat left on your welcome mat as a “gift”. (Eeeeewwwwww, ummmmm, thanks Mr. Mugglesworth, that’s so sweet of you.) Let me tell you though, anchovies are more a victim of lousy PR than actually being unpalatable.
Anchovies are eaten by people all over the world, whether incorporated into sauces, as part of the traditional Caesar salad dressing, or simply spread on toast. Considered to be an oily fish, anchovies are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol. They are also chock full of vitamins, minerals, and other important elements that are necessary for a healthy, balanced diet. Okay, so the smell can be a bit off-putting at first. Think about all the other delicious things we eat that don’t really smell very good. (Let’s face it, a lot of cheeses smell like hot baby-sick.) The anchovies we’re familiar with are usually salted, packed in oil, and sold in a small can or jar. The distinctive smell and flavour comes from the method of preservation. You can also find white anchovy fillets in specialty European markets. These anchovies are pickled in vinegar, which gives them a milder flavour and aroma.
There are many ways to incorporate anchovies into you diet. You can have them on pizza, as a sandwich spread, or as part of your favourite salad dressing. My favourite way to eat them is in the traditional spaghetti puttanesca. This is an old recipe from southern Italian coastal regions. Supposedly, this pasta dish was popular with prostitutes, (spaghetti alla puttanesca translates as “whores’ pasta”), as it was a cheap, easy to make meal that could be eaten quickly between customers. This pasta dish has a ton of big flavours, as it includes olives, capers, and lots of garlic and hot pepper flakes. The anchovies wind up adding a bunch of meaty, umami flavour to the sauce, but without any overt fishiness. Remember, it’s about baby steps.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
(Prep time: 10 minutes. Cook time: 30 minutes. Serves: 3-4)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, minced (approx. 1 cup)
- 1/2 tsp crushed hot red pepper flakes
- 1 50 g can anchovy fillets plus oil they are packed in
- 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives
- 1/2 tbsp capers
- 1 796 ml can diced tomatoes
- 1 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 tsp fresh thyme and rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente
Cook the onions, garlic, and pepper flakes slowly in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, until they are fragrant and soft. Stir frequently, and don’t allow the onions to brown. After 10 minutes, increase the temperature to medium-high, and stir in the anchovies and their oil. Allow the anchovies to fry in the hot oil, until they start to melt into the onion mixture, about 2-3 minutes. Stir the mixture constantly or it will burn. Now add the capers and olives, and fry them in the anchovy mixture for 1 minute. Now add the rest of the sauce ingredients to the pan, slap the lid on the pan, and simmer the sauce for 10 minutes over low heat. This would be a good time to cook your spaghetti noodles.
After 10 minutes, remove the lid from the pan, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook the sauce for another 3 minutes, until it has thickened up slightly. Now you can add your cooked spaghetti to the sauce. Carefully toss the pasta in the sauce, over medium-low heat, until it is evenly coated. Simmer the noodles in the sauce for another minute, and your spaghetti alla puttanesca is ready to eat.
Serve your spaghetti with lots of grated Parmesan cheese,and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. You might have noticed that we didn’t add any salt to the dish. The reason is that between the anchovies, capers, and olives, you don’t really need extra salt. The anchovy fillets have magically disappeared, leaving only that meaty flavour, and a slightly salty richness. As you wolf down bite after bite, the huge flavours work your tastebuds like a speed bag. Before you know it, your plate is empty, your belly is full, and you’re contemplating changing into sweat pants so you can have a second helping without splitting your jeans. (Oops, too late! Relaxed fit my ass!)
I hope you’ll be inspired to make a change to your routine, incorporate these tiny fish into your diet, and maybe help to get anchovies a better reputation. How about this for an ad campaign: “Anchovies. They smell bad, and they’re delicious.”
(Okay, we’ll have to work on the slogan a bit…)