It seems that most people view anchovies in the extreme. These briny little fish elicit an immediate love them or hate them response from most people, even though they may not have had much experience eating or cooking with them. In reality, anchovies are great flavor enhancers, whether subtly enriching a sauce or in the forefront as a key ingredient in a fresh salad. Usually, though, anchovies play the supporting role, serving as umami, or that almost undefinable “fifth” taste element. In fact, they are considered one of the ultimate umami agents due to their high content of glutamate, which is credited with producing the umami effect.
Most people in the United State were first introduced to anchovies as a topping for pizza, which I consider one of their poorest uses. They tend to overpower other common pizza toppings and come off as strong and salty. Anchovies, like anything else, benefit from complementary ingredients. They are particularly good with hard-cooked eggs in a Salade Nicoise or with a richly dressed Caesar salad. Generally speaking, anchovies get along very well with typical Mediterranean favorites like lemon, basil, olives, garlic and capers. They practically dissolve when added to a hot pan, melding into the base ingredients and settling into that background taste that diners often can’t quite place. While I almost always use the salt-cured filets in cans or bottles, fresh marinated anchovies work great with salads or as a cocktail snack on a cracker with a spread. In Key West, you can find them in all forms at Fausto’s on Fleming.
Roasted Chicken with Anchovy Basil Pan Sauce
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously sprinkle 2 chicken leg quarters (or skin-on, bone-in breasts) with salt and pepper. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a cast iron skillet and, when it starts to smoke, add chicken skin side down. Cook, without disturbing for about 4 or 5 minutes until the skin is nice and brown. Flip the chicken and move the pan to the oven. Cook for about 20 minutes (15 if using breasts) until meat reaches 165 degrees when measured by an instant read meat thermometer. Remove to a cooling rack set over a plate.
Set the skillet over a burner at medium high heat and add 2 tablespoons of finely diced shallot. Cook 3 minutes, add 4 anchovies and ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes and stir to incorporate. Add ½ cup dry white wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any crusty bits on the bottom. Add about ¼ cup water and reduce everything to about 3 or 4 tablespoons of liquid. Remove from heat.
Add about ½ cup shredded basil leaves, the juice from half a lemon and 1 tablespoon butter. Stir to incorporate, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and spoon sauce over plated chicken. Serve with steamed zucchini and garnish with a sprig of basil.
Serves 2 Wine pairing: A dry, flinty French white, like a white Cote du Rhone