Friday, March 9, 2012

Pasta Puttanesca...and the Superiority of Salt-packed Anchovies

For all of my professional career whenever a recipe called for anchovies, I always reached for a tin of the oil-packed variety. At the restaurant where I received the bulk of my training we had access to an astonishing array of the highest quality ingredients...and we used oil-packed anchovies. The food we made there was truly excellent so I never felt very motivated to use anything else. Recently however, I made the switch to salt-packed anchovies...and I will never go back.

I made the decision to give salt-packed anchovies a try during a cooking class that I was co-teaching with a chef friend. She was making Caesar salad and had pulled out her big jar of salt-packed anchovies and was taking a moment to expound on how vastly superior they were to the oil packed variety. I have always thought my friend made a pretty tasty Caesar salad, and as I listened to her I began to wonder why I hadn't ever bothered to seek out salt-packed anchovies. I am, after all, a true believer when it comes to the superior results achieved when cooking is done with really good ingredients. I guess I had just never really believed that salt-packed could be that much better—at least not so much better that it would justify purchasing such a large amount. But I decided then and there to take the plunge and give them a try in my own cooking.

My experience with my new anchovies was completely unlike my disappointing experience with the supposedly superior imported oil packed tuna. When I opened my jar of salt-packed anchovies, I was first struck by the fact that there was no strong odor. The contents actually had a faint briny smell. When I pulled out one of the anchovies, it was immediately apparent that I was looking at a fish(!)...not a mystery strip of flesh that I had to take on faith as having once been a fish. After rinsing and deboning (easily done—gently pull each filet away from the skeleton, beginning at the head end), I found the individual filets to be plump and firm.

2 salt-packed anchovies (4 filets)
1 de-boned anchovy (2 filets)

The first thing I made with my new anchovies was Pasta Puttanesca. On the off chance that someone reading this has never heard of this rather unfortunately named dish, it is a highly seasoned pasta that can be made very quickly with the standard items on hand in an Italian pantry. The most frequent explanation of the name is that the ladies of the evening, for whom it is named, favored this dish because making it didn't keep them away from their clients for long. I found what sounds like a more likely explanation in Diane Seed's The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces. She explains that at one time brothels in Italy were owned by the state. Women who worked in the brothels were only allowed to shop once a week...making a repertoire of dishes that could be made with non-perishable items a necessity. This tomato sauce, heavily seasoned with garlic, anchovies, capers, olives and hot pepper flakes, fills the bill nicely. 

It was this dish that really convinced me to make the permanent leap to salt-packed anchovies. I have been making Pasta Puttanesca for years. And while always had never been this good before. All of the ingredients blended together into a flavorful, harmonious whole....whereas before, occasionally the anchovy taste was out front and center, screaming for attention. I couldn't believe the difference they made.

Salt-packed anchovies can be used exactly as you would use oil-packed—use one filet (half a fish) as you would use a single oil-packed anchovy. But since you will like them so much will probably want to use more. The salt packed anchovies impart the salty richness that one wants from an anchovy, without any of the faint rancidity that often accompanies the oil-packed variety (particularly those that have been opened and sitting for a while in the refrigerator).

As far as storage goes, salt-packed anchovies should be kept in their salt. If the ones you buy come in a tin, repack them in a jar (adding more salt to cover, if you like) for long-term storage in your fridge. Most sources will tell you that you can keep them for a year. Although, it seems to me they might keep indefinitely if kept chilled and well-covered with salt.

Besides the Pasta Puttanesca, I have used my new anchovies in one other pasta from my regular rotation—one that features broccoli. It was also excellent. I can't wait to try them in other old favorites. Perhaps I should make a Caesar salad next.

Pasta Puttanesca

1/4 c. Olive Oil
4 to 6 anchovy filets, minced
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t. Red Pepper Flakes (or to taste)
28-ounce can Italian Plum Tomatoes, passed through the coarse disc of a food mill (or pulsed in the food processor)
2/3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and cut into quarters
2 T. capers, drained and rinsed
1 lb. Penne pasta
1/4 to 1/2 c. minced flat-leaf parsley

Place the olive oil, along with the anchovy, garlic & peppers in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Stir to coat everything with the oil and cook until the garlic is beginning to turn golden, but is not brown—2 minutes or so. Add the tomatoes with the olives and capers. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce begins to thicken, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well. Add the parsley and toss again. If you like, drizzle in a bit more olive oil to give the sauce a nice sheen. Serves 4 to 6

• Most of the flavors in this dish are “to taste”—so, add anchovy, garlic, pepper flakes, capers and olives in quantities to suit your taste.
• During the growing season, use fresh tomatoes that have been peeled and chopped. You will need about 2 pounds of tomatoes.

(Recipe adapted from Trattoria by Patricia Wells)

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