Swim with a school of anchovies

Los Angeles TimesJanuary 8, 2014 

Once, many years ago, I came across a fish vendor at the farmers market with a whole tray full of beautiful fresh anchovies. On a sudden impulse, I bought them all. Real anchovies -- the ones that have been packed in salt to last -- are an essential flavoring, the garlic of the sea.

And then I repented at leisure, trying to figure out what I was going to do with all of them. Apparently preparing your own salted anchovies is something that had not occurred to many cookbook writers.

Thus inspired, I spent the next couple of hours carefully pulling the heads and guts out of several pounds of 2-inch fish and arranging them neatly between layers of kosher salt. In the end, I had enough salted anchovies to last a year, but I promise you it made the $10 or so you'll spend for a pound of the store-bought ones feel like a grand bargain.

Though there are dishes in which salted anchovies star, such as the Piedmontese anchovy-garlic dip bagna cauda, most often they're happy to stay in the background, lending a deep savoriness that is absolutely necessary to the success of the recipe even if its source remains anonymous.

One of my favorite ways to use anchovies is in roast lamb: Stud the leg with a bouquet of anchovy, garlic and rosemary, and the flavors melt into the meat. The other night I was fixing eggplant for the grill and wondered about doing the same thing. I cut slits into thick slabs of eggplant and inserted thinly sliced garlic, a little slip of salted anchovy and a sprig of rosemary. Yowza.

Salted anchovies are also the foundation for salsa verde. Or should I say "salsas verde," because there is no single recipe for it. Rather, it's a varied mash of anchovies, garlic, capers and green herbs thinned with olive oil. Think of it as pesto's rowdy cousin, coarse, big-flavored and untamed by the mellowing of cheese or nuts.

Within that broad framework of ingredients, there is much room to play. You can thicken salsa verde with soaked bread or boiled potato to make a smoother, more cosmopolitan sauce. Some recipes call for mustard or hard-cooked egg, some for cornichons or green olives. I like to add green onion and sometimes even fennel seed (amazing with grilled swordfish).

Parsley is the main herb, but it's augmented by whatever seems good at the time. Basil, tarragon, fresh oregano, sorrel, rosemary, watercress and even nasturtiums can be used. I just found a description of salsa verde made with celery leaves, and that sounds perfect.

The sauce comes together in seconds in a blender or food processor, but I like to make it with a mortar and pestle. The pounding releases the herb's oils, making a more fragrant mixture.

And then when you taste it, there's that wild savory tang of anchovies underneath. You can't quite put your finger on it, but you know it's there.

SALSA VERDE

1 anchovy (2 fillets)

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed thoroughly if salted

1/2 cup mixed green herbs, at least half parsley

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar or lemon juice

Serves four to six.

Rinse the anchovies under running water to remove excess salt and then soak in water to cover in small bowl until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove the fillets, discard the skeletons and soak another 5 minutes until flexible. Chop coarsely.

With a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with the salt to a smooth paste. Add the capers and chopped anchovy, and pound to a coarse paste. Add the herbs and pound to a paste. Starting with just a little at a time, add the olive oil, stirring with the pestle to make a smooth emulsion. Stir in the red wine vinegar. Taste and adjust salt and vinegar.

To make salsa verde in the blender or food processor, pulse the anchovies, garlic, capers and herbs to a coarse paste. With the machine running, slowly stream in the olive oil. Stir in the vinegar and add salt to taste.

GRILLED EGGPLANT WITH ANCHOVIES, GARLIC AND ROSEMARY

3 salted anchovies (6 fillets)

6 cloves garlic

1 cup olive oil, plus more if necessary

2 large (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds) round eggplants

2 long branches fresh rosemary

Salt

Serves four to six.

Rinse the anchovies under running water to remove excess salt and then soak in water to cover in small bowl until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove the fillets, discard the skeletons and soak another 5 minutes until flexible. Cut into approximately half-inch crosswise pieces.

Using a very sharp knife, slice the garlic crosswise as thin as you can. Reserve the tops, bottoms and odd-shaped pieces in a bowl and cover with olive oil.

Trim the tops and bottoms of the eggplants, and cut the eggplants into 1-inch-thick crosswise slices.

Working with one slice at a time, use a paring knife to cut 5 shallow slits into the eggplant -- four at the compass points and one in the center; they should be about one-half-inch deep and should not go all the way through.

Insert a garlic slice in each of the slits (if necessary, widen the slit by wiggling the paring knife in it). Insert a piece of anchovy in each slit. Finally, insert a tuft of rosemary in each slit. The fillings should be as close to flush with the surface as you can make them. Repeat with the remaining eggplant slices.

Sprinkle both sides of each eggplant slice with salt and brush generously with the garlic olive oil. Grill over a moderate fire until browned on one side, 4 to 5 minutes.

Brush with more olive oil and use a spatula to turn to the other side and brush that with oil as well. Continue cooking until the eggplant is browned on both sides and tender, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove to a platter, brush with any remaining oil and serve.

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