Maligned and misunderstood, anchovies have long been those stinky little fish that sneak into Caesar salad or top some adventurous person's pizza.
"My father would eat them out of a can," says New Orleans restaurateur and TV chef John Besh. "If Dad was going hunting, he'd grab a can of smoked oysters or anchovies and crackers and that would be his lunch."
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But today, chefs like Besh have moved anchovies to the top of the food chain, showcasing them as elegant bar snacks, sophisticated bruschetta or the foundation for pasta dishes and stews.
"They make friends and enemies quickly," says Seamus Mullen, chef-owner of Tertulia in New York City. "A bad anchovy is not a good thing. It's a question of making sure you get the right ones."
Getting the "right" anchovies has become much easier in recent years. The mushy, salty tinned anchovies eaten by Besh's father are still out there. But more and more, the shelves of gourmet stores and upscale supermarkets offer high-quality anchovies preserved in olive oil, pickled in vinegar or sometimes even fresh.
More menus feature items such as "boquerones," white anchovies, often dressed with vinegar. Fresh anchovies might be cooked over a wood fire or dressed with bread crumbs and garlic. Sometimes, anchovies go undercover. Besh uses them as what he calls "nature's MSG," melting them into beef daube and lamb stew to intensify the savory flavors.
Nick Stefanelli, executive chef at Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca in Washington, D.C., uses them to make an ancient Roman fish sauce called garum.
"One of the most classic pasta dishes is spaghetti with fish sauce, garlic and chilies," says Stefanelli, who includes the dish on his tasting menus. "The product itself really takes it where it needs to be ... It's so simple and beautiful."
Anchovies have been a staple of Italian, Spanish and Provencal French cooking for centuries. French and Italian country stews use them to provide umami, a sense of meatiness and depth. They are made into marinades and tapenades, tossed into pasta and mixed with garlic, bread crumbs and parsley to stuff vegetables, such as peppers and eggplant. In Spain, they are among the finest tapas.
"In Spain, you can go into any tapas bar and you'll see anchovies all over the menu," chef-entrepreneur Jose Andres said via email from Spain. "What we are seeing right now in the U.S. is a food revolution where people want to know more about food, and so as that is happening people are becoming more and more open to new ingredients and experiences."
Not that you'll see anchovies in the fast food lane any time soon. But as more and better quality anchovies become available, they're likely to play a bigger role on supermarket shelves and upscale menus. But in the wider world, they may hang out on pizza and Caesar salad a bit longer. Which is not such a bad thing.
"The Caesar salad with anchovies, when done well," Mullen says, "is pretty darn good."