You might not imagine the anchovy, that canned fish so reviled by children and the squeamish for its overpowering presence in Caesar salads and on pizzas, as a stealthy ingredient.
Nevertheless, the anchovy crept up on me.
I can pinpoint the moment it wriggled its way into my cooking. It was summer, a season of warm air, languor — and collard greens. Paging through the “Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook” one evening, I came across a method for cooking tender young collards with a quick saute, in a pan started with a shake of red pepper, olive oil and anchovies. I eyed the recipe with a healthy Southern-bred skepticism. Searched for the ham hock in this recipe. Searched for the bacon. The smoked turkey wing?
And since cooking is, for me, a way to serve both my innate contrarian and her twin, the starry-eyed curiosity seeker, that was all it took.
I might scoff at the notion that any Southern cook worth her cast-iron pan would try to flavor collards without a pork product. Then I might do exactly that, just to make us both admit those fish-flavored greens were delicious.
Luckily, I was in possession of the tenderest, most perfect armload of collard greens I had ever seen, grown in far northern Illinois (almost Wisconsin) at Kinnikinnick Farm, greens purveyor to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. I had the cast-iron pan. One trip to the all-night grocery later, I had the fish.
More fish than I needed, actually — in a fever of indecision, I bought fish in jars (old school, lurid, dubious packaging) and something called creme d’anchois (silly name, weirdly compelling yellow-and-blue tube). A sucker for packaging, I tried the fish paste first. It melted into a silky puddle in the pan, coating the garlic and red pepper flakes and then the greens, which I ate, standing up in the kitchen, by the faint light of the range hood. I was converted, and those speedy, spicy greens became a house recipe, enshrined alongside things like biscuits, chocolate chip cookies and pulled pork.
The more pungent jarred fish made their debut a few weeks later. Smashed with a fork, they flavored first the greens and then attained secret ingredient status in the pulled pork, a braised chicken thigh recipe and more. Umami all over the place. If the recipe called for starting with bacon, I subbed the fish, with delicious, nuanced results. Anchovy haters never knew what hit them.
Anchovies in the pantry were like money in the bank. I was always looking for new ways to try them.
By the time I noticed an online mention of a specific kind of anchovy, one that trumped the supermarket variety with superior taste and texture, my inner skeptic was mostly silenced. I wanted to try those fish.
Adding to the urgency was another cooking project that had been canonized in our kitchen: pizza-making. After consulting with bread guru Jim Lahey for a story on homemade pizza, I was on the lookout for pizza ingredients that would deliver bigger, better flavor. Lahey’s advice was that the best ingredients are what truly elevate the pizza, not the ability to spin the dough into a perfect round every time.
Online food gurus agreed: If you wanted great anchovies, the fish you wanted were from the Cantabrian Sea, caught by the fisherman of the Spanish town Santona, packed and sold by the Don Bocarte company. Don Bocarte’s anchovies, they say, are caught only during April, May and June, scooped from the sea while migrating along the Spanish coast. Hand-packed in extra-virgin olive oil and with a touch of salt that renders them the height of fishy, creamy deliciousness. The more I read, the more my mouth watered. Those anchovies belonged on my pizza. I found them online but realized that the tin (less than 2 ounces for $13) would also cost $13 to ship. I called local grocers, looking for the brand, but was denied. Annoyed, I contented myself with lesser fish.
Finally, on a trip to New York, I remembered reading about a Spanish foods importer that had opened a SoHo shop. They carried the Bocarte anchovies. After a panicked moment scanning the shelves at Despana Foods — the anchovies were in the refrigerated case, as it turned out — two tins of anchovies were mine, for roughly the price of one ordered online. In the logic of travel shopping, this seemed completely reasonable.
Back home, they lingered on the pantry shelf for a while, waiting to make their entrance. On the first run, I overfished the pizza — it was a touch too pungent for everyone but me. The second time around, I had a surer hand — Bocarte’s anchovies, broken and sparingly applied, were the perfect taste of buttery olive oil and the tang of the ocean, swimming with the other toppings of olives, pepper, tomato and cheese. My journey with the anchovy had reached its satisfying end.
There’s still a partial tin lingering in the fridge, and it’ll need to be eaten. Of course there are greens to cook, pulled pork to season, pizza to make. But we’ve been down that path. What about a little anchovy crostini? Or an anchovy-laced pasta dish? Or soup with cannellini and kale?
Let’s just say: if you’re going to be in SoHo, I could probably use another can of fish.