In the early days of my chef apprenticeship, I remember standing in a back lane behind the restaurant after a busy night in the kitchen. I smoked back then because if you didn’t you wouldn’t get a break. The head chef told me he would prepare dinner and returned to the kitchen where he opened a dinner roll and stuffed a couple of anchovies inside. This unusual sandwich was shoved into my hand; an ice-cold beer into the other. It was a special moment in the middle of summer, and a perfectly delicious dinner. It marked the beginning of my love affair with anchovies.
Generally in Australia we get anchovies similar to the European variety but, in total, there are about 140 species in the anchovy family.
I live for the salted and tinned variety, but occasionally at the restaurant we get our hands on a delivery of the rarer fresh-caught anchovies, which are usually a by-catch and often unloved, ending up mainly as bait. I often find myself looking through the bait box at beachside service stations with frustration, to see if there are any edible specimens.
In some ways I’m grateful for their limited availability. They’re fiddly little things and a huge pain to gut, scale and fillet. One kilogram would take an experienced chef an entire afternoon to prepare (not really something I would enjoy doing every day). When handled with care, they have a lovely firm texture and a clean, fresh flavour – not fishy like the salted variety.
I usually souse the cleaned, raw fillets, laying them on a deep platter and covering them with quality olive oil, a touch of the best white wine vinegar from the larder, the smallest amount of super-fine diced garlic and a pinch of salt. They should then be left in the fridge to marinate for an hour before removing and serving at room temperature. Heaven.
But when fresh anchovies are not available, I always have the tinned variety opened and in the fridge. They make a great late-night snack on toast or a quick get-out-of-jail pasta sauce when tossed in a pan with olive oil, a chopped clove of garlic and a pinch of chilli.
I will also sometimes drop a few anchovies into a meaty braise, the fillets acting like a stock cube and offering a salty umami layer of flavour. The anchovy itself is undetectable in the dish, but it brings another aspect and depth of flavour. This is particularly great with braised veal osso buco.
Unfortunately, anchovies tend to polarise people. The hairy old-school pizza variety have done the most damage to the species’ popularity. But now, premium tinned European varieties are available in good food stores. Expensive, yes, but absolutely worth it.Anchovy, garlic and celery salad Serves 4 Best served as a component of an antipasto, or as an accompaniment to grilled beef or pork. Can also be spread on a piece of bread and eaten as an intense snack. – 1 head of garlic – 2 tbsp olive oil – 6 anchovies – 4 sticks of celery (only use the white from the heart and retain the light-coloured leaves) – 1 lemon – chilli powder (optional) Place the whole head of garlic in a steamer over a pan of vigorously boiling water. Steam for half an hour or until soft. Proceed to squeeze the cooked garlic “paste” from each clove. In a small saucepan, gently warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and anchovies and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the anchovies have melted into the paste. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Slice the celery thinly on the bias, reserving the light-coloured celery leaves. Place the sliced celery in a bowl of iced water until ready to use. When you wish to serve, strain the celery and pat dry. Toss the celery in the anchovy paste and, on a microplane, finely zest one lemon directly into the celery salad. Add one tablespoon of lemon juice and toss further. At this stage, taste a piece of celery and assess if more lemon is needed. Arrange on a plate and strew the white celery leaves over the dish. If chilli is your vice – as it is mine – dust with your favourite chilli powder. Anchovies on toast Serves 4 The quality of the anchovies dictates how delicious this snack will be. – 50g tin of Ortiz anchovies – ½ loaf of unsliced high-top sourdough bread, or a baguette (day old is best) – 50g fromage frais, or a fresh-style curd cheese (fresh ricotta also works well) – 1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted slightly in a dry pan and ground – 1 tsp chilli powder Heat oven to 180ºC. Place the bread in the fridge to firm and aid the slicing. Slice the bread as thinly as humanly possible (this is a little easier with a baguette). Lay the bread on a tray and drizzle with a little olive oil. Place a piece of baking paper over the bread and place another tray on the bread to compress. Bake in the oven for 5-10 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. When you wish to serve, place ½ tsp of the curd cheese onto each crouton. Spread the cheese across the croutons and lay a fillet of anchovy over the curd. Dust a pinch of chilli powder and fennel seed on the anchovy fillet. Eat immediately. Wine pairing: Perrier-Jouët NV, 2005 Spinifex Indigene – Liam O’Brien, sommelier, Cutler & Co.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 8, 2014 as "Simple pleasures". Subscribe here.