I have been eating anchovies for a very long time. I started cooking with them only recently. There’s something I’ve been meaning to say about that: Thank you, Luisa Weiss.
I like to think of Luisa as an air traffic controller for my kitchen. She peers up into the crowded sky of recipes, and clears only the very best of them for landing. When a recipe isn’t worthy, she tells us so, and off it sails into oblivion. I’m not sure what the air traffic controller equivalent of perfect pitch might be, but Luisa’s got it. Back in October, she posted a recipe for Marcella Hazan’s tomato anchovy sauce. Any recipe with Marcella Hazan in the cockpit and Luisa Weiss waving it down into my kitchen is a recipe worth making at once, so I got right down to it.
While I’m assigning alternate career paths to our dear Luisa, I should also tell you that she is a poet. So, when she instructed us to “melt a few anchovies in some olive oil,” I assumed that she was being, you know, poetic. Fish, as far as I knew, do not melt. Obviously, I had never cooked with anchovies before, because anchovies do melt. They do! To be fair, the technical term for what’s going on in the pan is probably something more along the lines of disintegration. But they sure do look as if they’re melting away. Luisa was just calling it like she saw it.
Marcella Hazan’s tomato anchovy sauce is about as straightforward as it gets. It’s one of those recipes that could chase even the cold-cereal-for-dinner type into the kitchen because, really, this is cooking? That’s all there is to it? Yes, that’s all. It’s foolproof. Unless you’re a total weirdo and think, hey, I like anchovies. Kind of a lot. And to avoid having to wrap up the several anchovies left in the tin, you decide to toss them all into the pan. As you’ve probably guessed, I am this weirdo. Now, I’d tell you that an entire tin of anchovies in a single dish of pasta is a lot of anchovies, but the trouble isn’t really the anchovies. It’s the salt. Anchovies packed in salt are, go figure, very, very salty. They are not meant to be eaten by the tinful, and if you don’t believe me, just ask my tongue which, a couple of bites into lunch, threatened to pack its bags and move out. Luisa, I shall never stray again.
I learned a lot that afternoon. It was a big day for me and anchovies, and I started thinking a little differently about them. In the years before anchovies ever hit the pan in my kitchen, I thought of them primarily as a topping, in the sense that lettuce, tomato, and onion top a burger, or mushrooms top a pizza. I’d drape two or three anchovies over a salad, or press a couple between the layers of a Swiss cheese, spinach, and mustard sandwich. In the days since my bungled sauce (which, un-bungled, is a very fine sauce indeed, you should know) I’ve been thinking of anchovies as something else, too: seasoning. Swap anchovies in for salt, and you get some pretty spectacular results. Because anchovies are more than seasoning, actually. They’re seasoning, plus. The “plus” is what’s there in addition to the saltiness, the flavor that you expect will taste like fish, but instead tastes like something you can’t quite pin down. The word “umami” comes to mind. Anchovies make Luisa’s sauce taste bigger; they make pasta with spicy broccoli taste like Dinner with a capital “D,” and lend this crustless quiche a surprising gravitas.
I just dubbed this specimen “crustless quiche,” but in truth, the dish comfortably straddles the frittata-quiche divide. So comfortably, in fact, that I had a hard time figuring out just what to call it. It’s flatter and less custardy than your average quiche; it looks and feels more like a frittata, but any frittata that I’ve ever met begins its life on the stovetop. This lovely concoction, on the other hand, cooks from start to finish in the oven. Like a quiche. I spun myself around in circles for a while, frittata, quiche, frittata, quiche, and then, as usual, Harold McGee set me straight. In his On Food and Cooking, McGee writes that a quiche is a “savory custard or a close relative of the omelet,” a “pie-shaped mixture of eggs and cream or milk that contains small pieces of a vegetable, meat, or cheese.” He explains that it can be baked “either alone or in a precooked crust,” and then, finally, comes the line that I’d been waiting for: “The Italian frittata and Egyptian eggah are similar preparations that omit any milk or cream.” Ah ha! So I guess it’s the milk, then, that pushes this dish into quiche territory. Thanks to you, too, Harold McGee.
It’s recipe time now, but I’m actually hoping you might trade me something for it this week, namely, an anchovy tip or two. How do you cook with them? I’d love to hear.
Kale and Onion Crustless Quiche
Inspired by Luisa Weiss's melting anchovies, Judy Rodgers's spicy broccoli, and a bunch of kale in my fridge
This quiche is great for Sunday morning company since you can do most of the prep work in advance. Toast the breadcrumbs and sauté the onions and kale the night before, and the next morning all that’s left to do is to whisk together the milk and eggs, prepare the pan, and assemble. You’ll be done even before the oven has a chance to preheat.
¼ cup breadcrumbs
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 bunch Lacinato (a.k.a. "dinosaur) kale, de-ribbed, rinsed, and not-so-thoroughly dried
5 salt-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
3-4 generous pinches dried red chili flakes
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
Butter for the pie dish
A couple of glugs of olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Shake the breadcrumbs into a single layer on a baking pan, and toast for 5-6 minutes, until golden. Butter a 10-inch shallow(ish) glass pie dish and coat it with the breadcrumbs, and set aside.
Heat a couple of glugs of olive oil over a medium-high flame in a 12-inch skillet, and sauté the sliced onion until translucent. Add the kale, turn the heat down to medium, cover, and leave it alone for 2-3 minutes to part-sauté, part-steam. When the kale is tender and has considerably reduced, add the chopped anchovies and red chili flakes. Stir, and cook for another minute or two, until the anchovies have melted away. Then, turn off the heat and allow the vegetables to cool slightly while you prepare the egg and milk mixture.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and the whole milk. No need to add salt, since the anchovies take care of that. Transfer the spiced and anchovied kale and onions to the prepared pie dish, and pour the egg and milk mixture over top. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the quiche is just set.
Serve warm or room temperature.