Monday, April 27, 2009

When Local Just Won't Do #1: Salted Anchovies

Generally speaking, I am a strong proponent of a locally-based diet. However, this poses some significant challenges considering my interest in the cuisines of other cultures. Spanish cuisine is especially problematic. Numerous Spanish specialties rely on unique products from specific regions. For example, an Asturian fabada requires special white beans (fabes de la Granja), cured pork shoulder (lacón), blood sausage (morcilla), and chorizo. While it IS possible to obtain these ingredients in America, they are often prohibitively expensive (e.g. $35 for a kilogram of fabes from La Tienda!!!!!) or of mediocre quality (e.g. Palacios chorizo is the only commonly available Spanish chorizo in the U.S.). What's worse, all these ingredients have to be imported from Spain with all that entails in the way of fossil fuels. Needless to say, I try to find domestic alternatives whenever long as they are of sufficient quality.
Sometimes the realities of living in Central Ohio override such concerns. In some cases, domestic alternatives simply do not exist. Anchovies are a great example...As far as I know, there is no significant domestic source for the tasty little fish. Luckily, imported anchovies are an "efficient" imported product, with a 2.2 pound can providing a supply for months (or weeks if you're like me). Even better, this kilo of animal protein costs HALF of what the somewhat pretentious fabes de la granja do.
Many foodwriters rave about the superiority of salt-packed anchovies over their jarred or tinned oil-packed bretheren. I finally summoned up the drive to give them a try to see if the hype was justified. My order arrived today and I dove right in!
Salted anchovies require a bit of work to reach edibility as they are packed in a giant block of salt. Take a look (not so appetizing at first sight):

To make them useful, you must carefully pry out the fish, layer-by-layer. Use a thin bladed knife or fork if you are worried:

Next, you must rinse off the excess salt. Use cold water and a GENTLE stream of water. Otherwise you rip the delicate flesh in two or lose it down the garbage disposal. Depending on the intended use, you can actually soak the anchovies for up to 15 minutes. If they are going in a cooked dish, don't bother soaking but be aware of the salt you are bringing to the party. Check out the rinsed fish:

Finally, you must carefully pry the two fillets from the backbone and scrape off any remaining scales or fins. Your fingers are perfect for this job! The first few might be a bit tricky but you'll get the hang of it faster than I could possibly explain it. Don't be afraid of a few stray ribs or can actually bread and fry the little skeletons for a delicious and crunchy snack. Here are some fully cleaned fillets:

Once filleted, you can use immediately or refrigerate in a non-reactive airtight container covered in olive oil.
As for the hype, it is well-justified. The cleaned fillets have a meatiness and depth of flavor that most oil-packed anchovies do not match. I suspect this has more to do with the fact that most anchovies are pre-cleaned than the particular merits of salt vs. oil-packing. Keeping seafood intact always enhances the flavor and these anchovies are no exception. The above fillets were so delicious that they went right into a Caesar Salad and were consumed before I even thought to take a picture! Hopefully, we'll be seeing more uses for my 2.2 pound block of salted fish before long...

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