There are people who love anchovies, people who do not love them but are not in the least bothered by their existence, and then there are people who become mentally unhinged from merely hearing the word “anchovy” spoken.
It’s a depressingly common occurrence to watch restaurant guests squirm in their seats when I tell them we’re serving fresh Monterey Bay anchovies. It’s as if these people are imagining that a small school of them had somehow found its way into their underpants and was now making a panicked attempt to swim up their urethrae.
I can think of no other possible explanation for their revulsion.
“I have the feeling you’d like me to move on to the next special,” is often the next thing out of my mouth. And then, if we happen to be selling them that evening, I proceed to rhapsodize about the fried lamb testicles.
What is it about anchovies that causes such passionate revulsion? What on earth or in the sea have these poor creatures done besides be stupid enough to get caught en masse in fishing nets?
Nothing. Next to plankton, they are the innocents of the ocean.
I won’t proselytize or otherwise try to convert the anchovy haters of the world to a state of love and acceptance, but my heart grieves for them.
The ecstasy of a freshly tossed caesar salad is lost on them, the experience of munching a pissaladière carpeted with olives will forever evade them, and never will they know the satisfaction of licking gentleman’s relish from the corners of their mouths.
At that’s just fine. It means there’s more for me. And for you, if you’re into it.
My friend Harry at Kokkari not was not only kind enough to order me up a pound of fresh anchovies, but personally showed me how to filet them without using a knife. I was grateful for his services and relieved to know that I did not need some doll-sized boning instrument to perform the task.
On top of all that helpfulness, he then told me how to cure them like we do at the restaurant. The preparation is as simple and straightforward as I imagine the anchovies themselves to be. Granted, I’ve never examined the inner life of an anchovy, so I wouldn’t know. I have, however, examined its inner organs.
The anchovies are ready to eat after five or six hours, but they are even better the next day. By Day Two, their flavor remains clean and bright, but the texture becomes buttery soft, nearly melting on the tongue upon contact. By Day Three, they will have fallen apart.
However, for anyone who loves anchovies as much as I do, there is no such thing as Day Three.
Makes as many cured anchovies as you have the patience for.
• Fresh anchovies. I use those fish caught in Monterey Bay. Choose the anchovies that roam closest to your home. If you live in the tropics or in the center of a large continent, this is potentially problematic.
• Olive oil. A mild one. Do not use the bottle The Baron gave you that day you helped him to his car after the accident. It is not only too precious, but too astringent.
• Lemon juice. Eureka, Meyer, or Liz. It’s really up to you.
• Kosher Salt. Sea salt feels totally unnecessary, given the subject matter.
• Finely chopped dill. A healthy amount, but not so much that your marinade looks like a kelp-choked tidal flat.
1. Obtain anchovies.
Are the gills a bloody red? Excellent. That means the anchovies are very fresh.
Now pinch the
cartilage bone hard bit that runs between the gills from the belly to the mouth and twist to pull out the entrails.
3. Pretending your pinky finger is a rather dull knife, run it gently down the belly of the fish, from head to tail. Remove any remaining organs.
4. Massage the fish’s spine until it comes loose from the flesh. At this point, you may either discard the spines, use them for a festive tablescape, or do as my friend Tom Hudgens would and fry them up into crispy chips. He does things like that.
You may also remove the head and tail, if you like. I prefer my fish to look as much like fish as possible, so I leave them on.
Repeat until there are no more anchovies to filet or your enthusiasm for the job leaves you entirely.
5. Lay your filleted anchovies skin side down and sprinkle moderately with salt. Leave them on your counter, go do something constructive like calming any anchovy haters* in the vicinity, and return 30 minutes later to rinse the salt off the fish.
6. After offering a sincere apology to the anchovies for ripping them open and pouring salt into their wounds, place them in a shallow baking dish.
7. To make the marinade, add one part lemon juice to three parts olive oil, add as much dill as seems reasonable to you and whisk together.
Pour enough marinade over the fish to drown them, cover the dish, and place in the refrigerator until they are ready to be eaten and you, in turn, are ready to eat them.
Before serving, taste one of the fillets. If you feel they are not salty enough, sprinkle with a little more.
Serve the First-Day anchovies on their own, with just a drizzle of the marinade and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Serve Second-Day anchovies on toasted bread with great lashings of butter.
Serve Third-Day anchovies to your cat.
Do not serve Seventh-Day anchovies on the Sabbath.
* Make certain to wash your hands thoroughly before comforting.