Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ingredient: ANCHOVIES

What do Worcestershire sauce, nước mắm, remoulade, puttanesca, and Caesar dressing all have in common? That’s right! Anchovies! I knew you’d guess it.

Anchovies are small, oily, salt water fish related to other small, oily salt water fish such as the herring. They can be found in oceans around the world and are a staple of many cuisines. For example, in Asia, anchovies often appear in fish sauces such as nước mắm (Vietnam), nam pla (Thailand), and bagoon (Phillipines). In southern India, they enjoy both fresh and fried anchovies, and Morocco leads the world in canned anchovy production. The Spanish like their anchovies cured in olive oil and sometimes a little vinegar, as do the French, and the Italians often add anchovies to pasta sauces.

You know who else loves anchovies? All types of seabirds and fish. Ever thought you’d share the same tastes as a shark? Maybe. What about a halibut? I know; the food chain is a funny thing. Even more bizarre is that despite their bad rap as smelly old fish, the anchovy is one of the world’s most popular species.

Love for anchovies goes back a long time. They were highly prized in Roman times because they were the main component of garum. Though it sounds like bat poop, this fermented fish sauce cost as much as expensive perfumes and was considered an aphrodisiac (though honestly, what didn’t turn the Romans on?)

What exactly is the allure of these little fish? Anchovies are said to have umami, that elusive fifth taste that basically embodies the word "savory." (MSG, parmesan cheese, and truffles all have umami as well.) The issue with anchovies is that they have to be dried, packed in oil or salt, or canned almost right after they've been taken out of the water. The flavor of anchovies intensifies in the preservation process, and even more when you cook them (which is why anchovy pizza can easily get out of control.) The easiest way to deal with this problem is to buy quality anchovies. I like to buy Spanish or Sicilian anchovies, because these countries have access to large populations of the fish and have been practicing the art of anchovy preserving for many, many years.

Cod and Green Beans with Anchoïade

Lately, I’ve been reading a book of letters between Julia Child and Avis de Voto. When I'm done I'll write a review, so I’m pleased to say that I’ve been enjoying the book immensely. In particular, the letters have made me think three things. One: Well written letters are an art and damn email for making this age old past-time disappear. Who will remember my witty quips and unfortunate foibles? What exactly is my electronic footprint? Two: I need to learn how to cook French food. Somehow French food has never been very high on my list of cuisines to master. The big stumbling block has been my resistance to cream. But France is a great big country (culinarily speaking) and there are definitely recipes worth making, and more than that, recipes I would enjoy. Learning to cook French food has moved towards the top of my list of things to do.

Most of all, however, I’ve thought about how I want to do a road trip through the south of France. Julia Child lived in Marseille for a year in 1954 when her husband was stationed there, and she's convinced me it should be a life goal to eat really good Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise. I am lucky enough to have been to the South of France- to Nice, Antibes, and Monte Carlo (yes, yes, technically that’s Monaco) and it was gorgeous and wonderful, but I need to go back with a culinary mind. And I need to make it to Provence. I grew up reading everything Peter Mayle ever wrote. I’ve dreamed of lavender covered hills and open air cafes where old men play boules at your feet and argue over pastis.

Well, we can’t always get what we want when we want it. I'll have to wait for the trip, but thanks to global commerce, I can recreate the flavors of Provence at home. So the other night I made cod and green beans with anchoïade. Anchoïade is a Provençal puree of anchovies, garlic and olive oil. It’s rich and a bit spicy and it can go on almost anything. Bread, raw and cooked veggies, fish. Thanks to the food processor it's also insanely easy to make. You literally just throw the ingredients into the machine, give it a whirl, and you have the sauce. It's fantastique!

Serves four


2 lbs cod fillets, rinsed and patted dry
1 lb green beans, cleaned and trimmed
7 ounces anchovies packed in olive oil, drained
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus one tbsp for grilling
one loaf crust bread, cut into slices (optional, except not really)

Put anchovies, garlic, capers, and olive oil in a food processor. Pulse until almost smooth, about 15 to 20 pulses.

Scoop out anchoiade and set aside.

Season cod with salt and pepper (I also have bay seasoning on hand, so I used a little.)

Put a grill pan over medium high heat and grease with tablespoon of olive oil. Put the fish on the grill pan and cook until opaque and just flaking, about 3-4 minutes per side. *Fish should be cooked for about 10 minutes per inch, so depending on how thick your cod is, cooking times will vary slightly.*

While cod is cooking, heat a large sauce pan over medium high heat with two inches of water. Place a steamer basket on top of the sauce pan. Place the green beans in the steamer basket. Cook until bright green but al dente, about 5 minutes.

Plate the cooked cod and the green beans. Drizzle each with anchoiade. Serve with crusty bread to mop up the sauce.

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