The new bacon? Anchovies take their place among umami foods

If you’re gonna eat anchovies, really go for it. The boquerones at Mas are a courageous—and delicious—introduction. Photo: Andrea Hubbell If you’re gonna eat anchovies, really go for it. The boquerones at Mas are a courageous—and delicious—introduction. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

They aren’t just the pizza topping you love to hate anymore. Anchovies are showing up on menus all over town, and diners are responding.

“I think more chefs are turning to anchovies as an ingredient not just as a topping but as a way to add depth and umami to other dishes,” Lampo co-owner and chef Loren Mendosa says, referring to the so-called fifth taste that might be described as “savory kicked up a notch.” “Umami is kind of a buzzword, but it really is important. Chefs are constantly looking for foods that have high concentrations of umami, and anchovies are one of them.”

Fact is, anchovies have been in dishes for quite some time. But it’s only been in the last decade or so that diners’ tastes have become accepting enough for them to be mentioned on menus, according to Parallel 38 owner Justin Ross. As Ross puts it, “consumers have more and better resources, so they are better educated about what’s in their food and, perhaps more importantly, what’s in their favorite chef’s food.”

These days anchovies are taking center stage in an array of preparations: white anchovies dressed with oil and citrus as boquerones, fresh-roasted anchovies and cured anchovies mixed into spreads, tossed with pasta, giving salads that extravagant edge and—of course—on pizza. “Anchovies give you the brininess, a lot of mouth feel from the oil and fat and a hint of the ocean,” says former Public Fish & Oyster chef Donnie Glass, who’s in the process of opening Banyan Day Provisions, a seafood counter in Timbercreek Market.

Glass points out the majority of preparations feature cured anchovies—the tinned, floating-in-oil variety usually associated with the fish. And Mendosa says it’s that age-old version that fits so well with modern cookery. “When you’re trying to build a dish that has some bigger flavors, you can’t add things that are too light because they will be overpowered,” he says. “Anchovies can take it.”

Anchovies are most often cured for good reason, Glass says—they just don’t stay fresh long. But they’re also delicious fresh, according to Mendosa. “They’re an oily fish, similar to mackerel, so they can stand up to the high temperatures” and crisp up without drying out, he says.

Ross says white anchovies are “more approachable” and have also helped the fish’s popularity. Less pungent than the cured variety, white anchovies are more likely to be seen as a standalone protein.

So what’s the future for anchovies? Are they here to stay? Will they come and go? Heck, could they be the new bacon? Glass says no.

“False. Absolutely false,” he says. “There will never be a new bacon, and if there is we will see it come and go and see bacon retake its place at the top of the food chain.”

Ross is more diplomatic. “Anchovies are perhaps the new olive…always hidden in recipes to pack a punch when it comes to flavor, insanely versatile and absolutely delicious on their own,” he says.

There’s something a little fishy about this tapenade at Parallel 38 (hint: It’s anchovies). Photo: John Robinson
There’s something a little fishy about this tapenade at Parallel 38 (hint: It’s anchovies). Photo: John Robinson

ANCHOVIES AHOY

One of the longest-standing anchovy preparations in town, Mas’ white Cantabrian anchovy fillets dressed in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice are a favorite of local chefs and foodies. According to Lampo co-owner and chef Loren Mendosa, the fillets that Mas mastermind Tomas Rahal sources are the “best of the white anchovies.”

Parallel 38 occasionally serves boquerones marinated in olive oil, citrus, vinegar, garlic and herbs as a special, and owner Justin Ross says the fish are used to punch up many of the restaurant’s traditional sauces. For your everyday anchovy fix, try the tapenade with kalamata olives, anchovies and lemon.

Ross says “anchovies are the flavor backbone of puttanesca,” and Fellini’s take on the classic dish doesn’t disappoint. The campanelle pasta with sausage is tossed in a sauce of fresh tomatoes, artichokes, capers, olives and an anchovy wine reduction for that mouth- coating umami kick.