Cooking with anchovies: Little fish, big taste

The anchovy is a stealthy ingredient that will jazz up many a dish — even for those who think they don't like the oily little fish.


I've adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to certain recipes – those that include anchovies.

No one seems to be shy about their opinion on the tiny, oily, salty fish. There's the "I can eat them right out of the can" minority, and the "There were anchovies in that? But I hate anchovies" majority.

So I've learned it's best to remain mum. These days, waterboarding couldn't get me to admit that I'm putting a few anchovy fillets in that stuffed, boneless leg of lamb, or mashed up in those innocuous-looking deviled eggs.

Personally, I've never had a problem with raw or pickled fish. Maybe it's my Scandinavian heritage. Anchovy fillets rolled around capers with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise was a common snack when I was a lad.

But it was my trips to southern France, Italy, and Southeast Asia that underlined the versatility of the ubiquitous little fish.

In Vietnam, small vendors sell bowls of beef-noodle soup (pho) flavored with anchovy sauce; in Thailand, nam pla, the salty-sweet sauce made from fermented anchovies and sugar, adds dimension and interest to dishes like pad thai. It's even used as a dipping sauce for fresh fruit, much the way balsamic vinegar is used in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

I've found that most folks are unaware of how often anchovies appear in the most unexpected places. To committed anchovy loathers, I say, don't read the ingredients on Worcestershire sauce or Green Goddess dressing. And beware of authentic Caesar salad and salad niçoise. And by all means, avoid Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.

For the courageous, I say, try slipping an anchovy on a cheeseburger or squirting a bit of paste into your next meatloaf. You don't have to tell anyone. It can just be our little secret.


A pat of anchovy butter is a wonderful flavoring on steak, fish, roasted chicken, vegetables, and potatoes, or simply spread on thin toasts.

Compound butters are made by mixing seasonings into softened butter. They are then rolled in plastic wrap and refrigerated or frozen.

Anchovy fillets are preferable; the paste is more convenient. One fillet is equivalent to one teaspoon of paste but is stronger in flavor.

2 to 3 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 clove garlic, minced (optional)

Ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

Using a mortar and pestle, or small bowl and wooden spoon, pound anchovies, parsley, and garlic into a paste. Thoroughly mix in pepper and butter.

Store refrigerated in plastic covered container, or roll into 6-inch-long cylinder, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.


Tapenade is the tangy, ubiquitous spread of Provence, France. It is a delicious topping served on thin, garlicky rounds of French bread, or with deviled eggs, or mixed in egg salad.

1 cup pitted niçoise or kalamata olives

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3 to 4 canned anchovy fillets, rinsed

1 tablespoon minced shallot or onion

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1/8 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Place olives, garlic, anchovies, shallot or onion, capers, and thyme in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chunky.

With processor running, slowly add olive oil in a thin stream, then lemon juice.

Tapenade will keep for one week if covered and refrigerated.

Makes about 1-1/4 cups.


Serves 4 to 6

Puttanesca is that hot, quick, and spicy sauce named for Italy's ladies of the night. It combines many flavors of the Mediterranean, so if you have the ingredients for tapenade on hand, you're almost there.

Typically the sauce is served over spaghetti, as it is in its hometown of Naples. It also works well over grilled chicken or swordfish.

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

12-ounce can of anchovy fillets, drained and rinsed

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 28-ounce can of Italian plum tomatoes, including juice

3 tablespoons capers

1/2 cup pitted niçoise or kalamata olives, chopped

Pinch or two of hot pepper flakes (or to taste)

Ground black pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Freshly chopped Italian parsley

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (can omit if used as a topping for fish)

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Add onion, anchovies, and garlic. Sauté gently over low heat, stirring occasionally, until onion softens and anchovies begin to disintegrate.

Coarsely chop tomatoes and add to pan along with capers, olives, pepper flakes, ground pepper, and oregano. Cook over medium heat until sauce begins to boil.

Serve over 1 pound of cooked spaghetti or pasta. Top with parsley and Parmesan cheese.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.