Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jan 6, 2014
10:12 AM
Small Dishes

Big Small Fish

“I'm an acquired taste. I'm anchovies. If I was potato chips I could go more places.”
― Tori ​Amos, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece

PHOTO BY DAN CURD

Rose Marie and Tony Schiavo

It’s obviously not their saltiness, but their fishiness that turns some of us off anchovies. Not me. I love anchovies … even before they were deemed good for me. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, they supposedly lower inflammation, reducing the risk of heart disease. That aside, I’d still eat them just like I’ll always eat potato chips. 

A member of the herring family found in warm waters worldwide, they average one to four inches in length. For eons various cultures have prized their unique savory taste. None more so than the ancient Romans who used them to make their favorite condiment, garum, the ketchup of its day. Speaking of ketchup, it owes its name to ke-chiap, a popular fish sauce made in southern China. In Fact, many early recipes for tomato ketchup included anchovies.

Christmas Eve has never been the same since Tony Schiavo (Antonio’s, Café Continental) passed away. He’d invite me each year to his extended family gathering where Rose Marie would make pizza—with anchovies exclusively for Tony and me. I have a friend who constantly asks me to serve the “garlicky salad dressing.” The recipe is from Commander’s Palace and loaded with anchovies. Normally, I’m willing to share recipes, but when asked what makes my deviled eggs so good, I know better than to divulge the secret ingredient.

In cooking, anchovies can be both assertive and subtle. They make bland hardboiled eggs interesting. A Caesar salad without anchovies is just a bunch of boring Romaine lettuce. Traditionally, they’re part of an authentic Bolognese sauce. They’re an essential ingredient in Worcestershire as well.

Anchovies are commonly available packed in either oil or salt, in cans or small jars. More often than not, they come from Morocco, however my favorite are Ortiz from Spain. Plump and sweet, they come packed in a five-ounce jar that includes its own little fork for extracting. (I was excited to spot them recently at Underground Butcher.) Minced fillets with vinegar and sugar added are sold in tubes as “anchovy paste.” Most of us have to settle for packaged anchovies, but when available fresh, fried and sauced with just a squeeze of lemon juice, they’re exquisite. (I once found them at Osteria Papavero served with a tomato sauce as an appetizer.) Almost any grilled fish is enhanced by a dab of anchovy butter.

Whether you love anchovies or want to overcome your phobia, here are four recommendations.

  • Best Cesar Salad: Lombardino’s. Rightly listed on the menu as the “Signature” Cesar Salad, it’s a classic ménage of romaine lettuce tossed with a dressing of extra virgin olive oil, fine Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh lemon juice and anchovies … garnished with an anchovy.
  • Best Anchovy Pizza: Porta Alba. Too often anchovies on pizza are just another topping thrown on. They’re the star on Porta Alba’s Pizza Napolitano; supported by a crispy crust, tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella.  
  • Best Puttanesca Sauce: Bunky’s Cafe. The restaurant’s roots are in Madison’s old Italian neighborhood, the Greenbush, so it’s not surprising red sauce rules here. The puttanesca with lots of garlic, red pepper, Kalamata olives and anchovies slathers a mound of fettuccine.

RECIPE: Spinaci alla Genovese

This makes an excellent side dish for grilled fish or chicken. I sometimes substitute Swiss chard for the spinach, cutting the stems into one-inch pieces, adding them to the sauté pan first.

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup golden raisins
2 1/2 pounds washed baby spinach
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
2 fat anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1/2 tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

DIRECTIONS

Place the raisins in a small bowl and add boiling water to cover. Let steep for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Set a large sauté pan with a lid—don’t use unlined aluminum or cast iron!—over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the garlic cloves. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to sizzle. Add the chopped anchovies and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until they melt.

Add the spinach by handfuls, letting it wilt, until you’re able to add all the spinach to the pan. Add the raisins and season with the salt and nutmeg. Mix well, cover, and cook for a couple of minutes or just until all the spinach has wilted.

Remove the cover, and raise the heat to high. Cook, stirring, until all the liquid evaporates. Add the pine nuts and cook for a few seconds more. Remove the pan from the heat and serve immediately.

Serves 6.

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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