In the right mix, even haters can become converts. These little salted fish possess multiple personalities depending on how they're consumed. As a background element they lend a remarkably unfishy depth.
POOR ANCHOVIES. Is there any food more people love to hate?
I learned to hate them before I’d ever tasted one, probably because nobody on the TV shows of my youth ever ordered a pizza without saying, “Hold the anchovies!” I can’t actually remember my first one, but I do remember it was exactly as I’d feared: unbearably salty and repulsively fishy.
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Of course there are people who love them. Take my husband, who is quite possibly the world’s biggest anchovy fan. He sucks them down au naturel, 10 in one go, alongside his morning coffee. But the intensity of his passion for them, and indeed his general taste for all sorts of salty, fishy things, led me early on to the conclusion that his palate and mine must be wired differently. Then, of course, there are entire countries like France, Spain and Italy, whose citizenries lap up anchovies like they’re the best thing since sliced bread. But even this I could explain away through my theory on childhood exposure, namely that if you eat something early and often enough you can develop a taste for anything — even anchovies.
For years I took it on faith that anchovies belong to the small category of foods about which it is impossible to feel any shades of gray. Like differential calculus and pink stilettos, you either love them or hate them — and I spent years convinced that if I would rather pick them off my pizza, I must be firmly in the hate camp.
But as with many things in life, the reality, it turns out, is more nuanced.
The problem with anchovies is that people figure if they don’t like them straight, they won’t like them in any form. This may be true of many things, but not anchovies. In fact, these little salted fish possess multiple personalities depending on how they’re consumed. Eaten alone they’re sharp, bracing and pungent — decidedly not everyone’s thing. As a background element, on the other hand, and in judicious amounts, they lend a remarkably unfishy depth — an intense “umami,” to borrow the Japanese term for a rich, savory flavor. Caesar salad, for instance, tastes weak without them. Simmered into robustly flavored sauces, soups and stews, they’re even more surprising, melding and amplifying the other elements while leaving nothing of themselves but a haunting, salty edge. Southeast Asians know this well; they’ve built a whole cuisine around fish sauce, which is nothing but fermented anchovies. Think about that next time you’re tucking into your favorite Thai curry.
Not only that, anchovies are one of the few fish we can eat with a clear conscience these days. Not a single fish but a family of 144 subspecies, they’re found in abundance in almost every ocean on earth. Although stocks in some places are showing signs of decline, overall they’re seen as a sustainable choice, and they’re healthy to boot, rich in omega 3s and low in heavy metals.
Since my “anchovy awakening,” as I like to call it, I use anchovies as a secret weapon in all kinds of dishes. I regularly add them to everything from pasta to sandwiches, even when I’ll be serving self-professed anchovy-haters. And with this chicken-liver pâté, I’ve actually converted more than one into cautious anchovy fans. Smooth as silk with just a hint of sweetness from the Madeira, the anchovies are undetectable if you’re looking for them, but lend the whole thing an unmistakable oomph. Naturally, I tell everyone the secret ingredient; it’s the least I can do to help rescue the poor anchovy’s reputation.
I won’t budge on one thing, though: They still have no place on pizza.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Silky Chicken-Liver Pâté
Makes about 2 cups
1 pound chicken livers
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, divided
3 medium shallots, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 anchovy fillets, preferably packed in olive oil
1/2 cup Madeira
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Herb garnish, optional: bay leaf or a sprig of thyme, marjoram or sage
1. Rinse the livers and trim off any large pieces of fat, connective tissue or dark-colored spots. Dry completely with paper towels.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy saute pan over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken livers and fry until they’re browned but still a little pink in the middle, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a blender. Add two more tablespoons of butter to the pan and repeat with the second batch of livers. Without washing the pan, melt another 2 tablespoons of butter and cook the shallots and garlic until they’re soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the anchovies and cook until they melt into a paste, about 2 minutes, then stir in the Madeira. Cook until the liquid has reduced to a thick syrup. Scrape the shallot mixture into the blender. Add the cream to the same pan and warm gently. Pour the cream into the blender and add the salt and pepper to taste. Blend until the pâté is smooth and silky. At this point, it will look like a meat smoothie, but it will firm up as it chills. Taste the mixture and add more salt and pepper as needed. For an extra-smooth pâté you can force the mixture through a sieve, but I rarely bother.
3. Pour the pate into an approximately 2-cup ceramic or glass container and smooth the surface. Refrigerate until firm, about four hours. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over low heat. If using herb garnish, put sprig on top of pâté. Spoon butter over the top and tilt to cover the entire surface. Chill until butter is firm, then cover with plastic wrap. Keeps refrigerated about 2 weeks.