Chance an anchovy

MONITOR: Slim, silver beauties of the sea... if you see anchovies on sale, snap them up, writes HUGO ARNOLD

MONITOR:Slim, silver beauties of the sea . . . if you see anchovies on sale, snap them up, writes HUGO ARNOLD

IT DOESN’T HAPPEN often, but occasionally over the next few months a box of anchovies will appear in among the salmon and cod at my local fishmongers. I marvel at these fish; sleek, small, sliver and slim. As with all fish, it seems a shame we only see their beauty when their life is over. How is it the anchovy can pack such a punch – all meaty, savoury, dense flesh – when it is such a skinny little thing? But dip it in flour and fry it, and you could almost be eating steak.

Am I kidding? Not at all. Scientists investigating the humble anchovy have identified that it is a fish rich in a savoury compound called inosinate.

Beef, lamb, mushrooms and Parmesan taste meaty because of a group of amino acids called glutamates. Combine inosinate with these glutamates and suddenly you have a supercharged version. Ask any good chef what makes their beef stew taste quite so delicious and they will smile and tell you all about the cooking, but leave out telling you about the two or three anchovies dropped in at the end.

We’ve all used Worcestershire sauce to beef up a shepherd’s pie without perhaps realising why. A dash of nam pla in a Thai curry is the same thing. A marriage of inosinate and glutamate.

Mention anchovies and many will wrinkle their noses in disgust. This is the fault of the canners and processors, not the humble anchovy. Choose a good brand such as Ortiz (with its fabulous packaging) and you are in for really pleasurable experience. And now that we head into lamb season, try the following: plunge the point of a sharp knife into a leg of lamb half a dozen times and stuff the hollows with mashed anchovy and chopped rosemary. This is a turbo-charged combination; a sort of super-lamb flavour that needs little more than plain potato alongside.

Don’t confuse salted anchovies with boquerones. These white and silver specimens are cured anchovies, the pickle rendering them firm and robbing them of one vital characteristic – melt-ability.

Add a salted brown anchovy to hot oil and it literally melts, ditto when added to a sauce, or inserted as in the lamb above. They also mash up easily, which is why it is a salted not a pickled anchovy that should be used in a Caesar salad and indeed on top of pizzas, where you undoubtedly want your inosinate to melt into your glutamate for satisfaction.

It is also the brown anchovy that works in one of Italy’s truly great sauces – bagna cauda – literally, “hot bath”. The combination is anchovy, olive oil, butter and garlic and if you are worried about the complexity of this dish, fear not, it is really that simple.

Having heated these ingredients together, all that is left to do is dip any number of vegetables – artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, courgettes, peppers and radishes – into it. All come up trumps in a coating of garlicy, meaty, buttery deliciousness. Dress broccoli or cabbage in an anchovy or two melted in olive oil and you’ll be rewarded with a healthy blast of umami.

And so back to the fresh version. If you are lucky enough to find them, you can just fry them, but best of all is to make your own boquerones. Remove the backbone and head and bathe the fish in a tablespoon of white wine vinegar, two of lemon juice and plenty of pepper. Leave in the fridge for a few hours and then dress with olive oil. Just don’t be tempted to fashion them into a Caesar salad or use to top a pizza.harnold@irishtimes.com