A recent trawling expedition in the Galveston Ship Channel brought up the mini-makings of a seafood platter: there were young crabs, shrimp, squid and trout in abundance, along with a few less recognizable fish.
“Those are anchovies,” our fishing expert said.
Anchovies? Those briny morsels, loved or loathed by pizza eaters, right here in Galveston Bay? Well, yes and no. Bay anchovies are plentiful in local waters, but they’re not the kind that are canned and used in Caesar salads, Mediterranean dishes and savory sauces.
Local bay anchovies definitely get eaten, but by other fish, not people. Most of the anchovies we eat were caught in the Mediterranean or off the Pacific coast of Peru.
While fish may be gobbling up anchovies, not all humans are willing to take the bait. Because the anchovy fillets we usually encounter have been brined and either canned in oil or packed dry in salt, they have an intense flavor that some people find too fishy. Many recipes avoid that by chopping the fillets finely or by simmering the fillets in hot oil for a few minutes until they fall apart, dispersing smaller bits of the strong flavor more widely.
Anchovies add a punch of flavor to Worcestershire sauce; because the fish are dissolved and mixed with other ingredients, there’s no hint of fish. The same technique is used when anchovies are added to pasta sauces, including the classic pasta puttanesca.
Puttanesca sauce is one of the fastest pasta sauces to put together; it takes so little time to make that it can be ready before the the pasta is cooked. The sauce relies on canned and jarred ingredients, including olives, capers, tomatoes and anchovies. The anchovies add a subtle pucker, but for those who are sensitive to salt, the fillets can be soaked in milk or white wine to draw off some of the salt and pungency.
That pungency comes strictly from healthy nutrients, as anchovies, and similar small fish such as sardines, contain almost no mercury. Unlike larger fish such as tuna, anchovies don’t retain mercury, which collects in larger fish throughout their lifespans. Anchovies can also be a significant source of calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, which help to prevent cardiovascular diseases.
Even people who swear they don’t like anchovies may be eating them, since they’re an essential ingredient in every Caesar salad. When prepared tableside, the dramatic production always starts with mashing a few anchovy fillets in a wooden bowl. Even variations on the salad, such as an avocado-enriched dressing, get their punch from anchovies.
For a less hidden, but still subtle, taste of anchovy, tiny bits are mixed into an eggy dough to produce airy, savory puffs. While the dough is similar to cream puff dough and baked the same way, it is made with cheese and spices to make the small bites a crispy snack or accompaniment to happy hour drinks.