Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Secret Ingredients and Techniques Part Deux: Anchovy Paste

One of the best things you can have hiding in your fridge.

There are some secret ingredients and techniques that I use, and some that others use that will make your cooking skills take a huge leap forward if you include some of these items and techniques in your everyday cooking repertoire. Every now and then I'll do a post about them.  These are things that can elevate a dish from good to great, from home cooking to “RQ” – Restaurant Quality,  which is the highest food compliment from Merry, my stepdaughter. 

I actually wrote about this before, but not with enough emphasis. To start: Anchovy Paste. Last night I had to whip up a shrimp and pasta dish, and I didn't want to open a big container of fish stock. Nothing ever tastes as good as the sauces that start with some sort of a stock, even a quick stock.  Many magazine recipes have you use chicken stock in fish dishes, but to me, that's just plain wrong. If you don't have time to make a real fish fumet, to make about a pint of fish stock, just cook a little onion and garlic in a bit of olive oil, add 1 cup dry white wine, 1 cup water, and a half teaspoon of anchovy paste. Add appropriate herbs if you want, like parsley, basil... Whisk well, bring to a simmer and use the stock as needed. Far better than that overly salty clam juice, and adds a great flavor base to any seafood dish.

My mother nearly always had a tube of anchovy paste in the refrigerator, mostly to use in Caesar dressing, since our small family wouldn’t use up an opened tin of anchovies fast enough. I always have a tube of anchovy paste going. It lives in my fridge door, and it goes into many dishes that you would NEVER think that included anchovies, because you can’t taste any fishiness. There is just umami. A basic definition of umami is that it is the 5th taste along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The closest description I can give it, as do most other writers, is savory. I have fed dishes with it to scores of people who claim to hate anchovies and not one has ever said anything but "Mmmmmmm". This past week I just saw it as an ingredient in a turkey burger on the food website CHOW.

There are other food items up my sleeve I use to add umami, but anchovy paste I use more often than most of the others. Almost any homemade dressing will benefit from as little as ¼ teaspoon added, as does homemade mayonnaise. It goes into many of my pot roast recipes, gets rubbed into BBQ meats before cooking and even added to soups and chicken pot pies. One place where it also really shines is adding depth to other seafood preparations, a kind of deep background note that you can’t quite put your finger on. I have also admittedly cheated on my Italian Christmas Seven Fishes Stew and counted the anchovy paste as a fish. There, it’s out there. Sorry Aunt Weezie. Mea Culpa.

Most recipes serving 4 people will get about a half-teaspoon of anchovy paste added for the umami-factor. Places where I do want the seafood flavor to come up, plenty more will go in. When I make pasta with a clam sauce, a hefty 2 Tablespoons will get added to the olive oil, butter and garlic at the very beginning of the sauté. Same deal with crab cakes and shrimp dishes.There is always an opened tube in my fridge, and a few others in the pantry. The opened tube will keep, refrigerated for several months, if you can make it last that long. Never does around here.

Next time you are in the market, buy a tube, it’s usually found near the canned fish, although occasionally with the tubes of tomato paste and pesto. I promise you'll thank me.

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