Friday, October 24, 2008

How I came to love the anchovy

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, salty anchovies lined up in tins, these are a few of my favorite things.

Yet, as a child I hated anchovies. Ok, hate is not a strong enough word. I despised anchovies. I happened to be one of those rare (read: bizarre) children who shunned sweets in exchange for the healthy and the salty. I had no business with apple sauce, cupcakes, and other childhood favorites; I would have much rather feasted on a bright bowl of beets and an earthy side of wilted spinach. As I got older and entered my inevitable junk food phase, I preferred the crunchy, salt coated potato chip to the gooey, saccharine chocolate chip cookie.

My mom always loved salt and sweet equally and although my dad claimed to have no propensity towards eating sugar, he would sneak off with a dozen of my mom’s homemade cookies and return with a clean plate. I, however, loved everything and anything salty: everything except the anchovy. I found the tiny fish mysterious and offensive- a dubious combination of oil, fuzz, and brine. My mom would order pizzas coated end to end in these distinctive fish and I would lament the ruined pie, picking off the anchovies and then shunning the slice with the lingering, potent flavor.

As I got older, I became known as an unbridled culinary adventurer. Like Anthony Bourdain, I would put just about anything between my lips, smacking my gums and smiling, while friends reeled at the knowledge that I had consumed something wholeheartedly unsavory and often inedbile. However, I always drew the line at anchovies.

And then I discovered the cuisine of Italy. After living in Italy and consistently sampling the simple, aromatic food, I realized that anchovies were the backbone to beloved dishes such as Puttanesca. Anchovies bring out the taste of their accompanying ingredients, building round, complete flavor profiles.

Since I loved Italy’s cuisine with such an open heart (and open stomach), it was only a matter of time before I stopped hating the anchovy, starting loving it, and learned how to utilize it properly. Anchovies quickly became a member of my holy trinity of cooking, in addition to acidy lemon and aromatic garlic. I began picking up anchovy undertones in the foods I ate regularly, the salty ocean flavor dancing on my tongue. I began welcoming anchovy laden dishes into my recipe repertoire.

They say your taste changes every 5 to 7 years. Perhaps this was the case with my newfound love affair with my former fishy nemesis. I became excited to cook with anchovies, creatively slipping them into friendly foods, opening up hermetically sealed minds, convincing anchovy foes that they, too, hold a rightful place in the culinary scheme of life.

Caesar salad is a perfect example of an overwhelmingly popular food often made with anchovies. The salad, named in the 1920’s for its creator Cesar Cardini, did not originally contain anchovies. They were added later by Cesar’s brother Alex, at the Tijuana restaurant owned by Cesar. Culinary lore suggests Cesar begrudgingly added anchovies to appease his brother, thinking them unnecessary in his masterpiece. Personally, I’m on Alex’s train. The combination of salty fish, creamy parmesan, and crunchy crouton will have you saying “yes, please!” to the anchovy.

Anchovies also provide an important base flavor for a dish I recently found in my favorite publication, Gourmet Magazine. One taste of pasta with spicy anchovy sauce and dill bread crumbs will have you trying and trying to identify the subtle, hidden flavor. A quick and simple dish, I love how the fish plays up the sweet, almost caramelized onions and delicate, fresh dill. Using bucatini pasta gives it a whimsical texture. Make sure to cook the breadcrumbs until they are very, very crispy, but not burnt.

Caesar Salad

1 very large head of romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
Baguette, cut into 1 inch cubes, yielding 2 cups croutons
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cracked black pepper

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup olive oil

Whisk all ingredients except oil in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewhisk before using.)

Makes about 1 1/3 cups.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk 1/4 cup oil and a pinch of course salt in large bowl to blend. Add bread cubes and toss to coat. Transfer croutons to baking sheet. Bake croutons until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

Place lettuce and croutons in large bowl. Sprinkle with cheese and toss with enough dressing to coat. Serve with any remaining dressing.

Makes 6 servings.

Pasta with Spicy Anchovy Sauce and Dill Bread Crumbs

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from a baguette)
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 pound red onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
1 (2-ounce) can flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
1 pound bucatini or perciatelli pasta (long tubular strands)
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook bread crumbs, stirring constantly, until deep golden and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.
Transfer bread crumbs to a bowl and toss with dill and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.

Wipe out skillet, then cook onions with 1/4 teaspoon salt in remaining 1/2 cup oil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until very soft, 12 to 15 minutes. Add anchovies and cook, mashing anchovies into onions, until dissolved.

Meanwhile, cook bucatini in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 5 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain pasta.

Stir red-pepper flakes and reserved water into anchovy sauce, then add pasta and toss to combine. Add about half of bread crumbs and toss to coat. Serve sprinkled with remaining bread crumbs.

Makes 6 servings.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Rancho Olivos Olive Oil

Olive oil is one of the most historically precious products, having been used for cosmetics in Ancient Egypt and in religious ceremonies in Ancient Minoa. Bygone people used it to give bright light while the modern use it to brighten their cuisine. The olive branch is a timeless symbol of peace, purity and forgiveness. Its oil has been used as currency and for fuel. It has been considered magical and medicinal. Olive oil is sacred entity with sacrosanct and pedestrian uses, fit for deities, athletes and cooks. No wonder Homer called it liquid gold.

Although Mediterranean oils are generally esteemed as the world’s finest, highly valued for their full bodied flavors, deeply rich hues and fragrant aromas, California is at the apex of quality oil production, a vital member of the industry. Spanish missionaries first brought olive trees to California towards the end of the 18th century and the modern market is thriving. American producers are giving the Greek, Spanish and Italian oil makers a run for their money, harvesting a diverse crop that yields dynamic and respected oils.

On a trip to the Santa Barbara wineries a few years ago, I made a stop at Rancho Olivos in Santa Ynez after being beckoned by a sign offering olive oil tasting. The proprietor, Shannon Casey, greeted us with warmth, hospitality, rustic bread, knowledge, and a few very friendly dogs. We were offered generous tastings of her olive oils and were thoroughly wowed by their complexity on the tongue, the intense strength of their fragrant aromas. Yet we somehow managed to leave without a purchase.

I thought of the superior oil every time I cooked so I finally contacted Ms. Casey and ordered a few bottles, which ended up being some of the most vibrant, richly flavored olive oils I have tasted. I continue to use her oils, which coax deeper flavors from ingredients and really stand out on their own, soaked up simply with bread.

At the moment, Rancho Olivos is selling three types of oils: Arbequina Extra Virgin, Italian Blend Extra Virgin and Garlic flavored. In the past, they have featured a wonderfully fruity Meyer Lemon infused olive oil.

Arbequina is a Spanish olive varietal. Rancho Olivos notes that this oil is “renown for its round buttery flavor.” They state that “Arbequina’s ability to pollinate itself allows the oil to be called by its own name”. While the Arbequina oil has a somewhat creamy flavor, the Italian blend is far more sharp, peppery and earthy. It is made from a blend of Frantoio, Leccino and Grappolo olive varieties.

Lastly, the garlic flavored oil displays the bold taste of roasted garlic. Rancho Olivos notes that since “there is no organic matter in the oil, it will keep like a regular olive oil.” The flavor is so upfront, so powerful, the garlic flavor anything but subtle. They have really captured the essence of garlic in a bottle and it is almost good enough to drink!

Rancho Olivos
2390 N. Refugio Rd.
Santa Ynez CA 93460
Phone: 686-9653
Fax: 688-6174