Something else, too

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.


Sophie said...

white anchovies are the best, much more mild in flavour, I eat them mixed with grapes and a little parsley, here!:


thefairygardenerquiltstoo said...

Well Jess, now I have an excuse to go out and buy a big bunch of kale. I always pass it by because I just don't know what to do with it.

Where can you buy salt-packed anchovies? I bought a tin (packed in oil) not too long ago because I wanted to make a Pissaladiere that I watched JC make on an old French Chef episode.

I love anchovies when they accompany an antipasto salad plate but I've never cooked with them. I have used the anchovy paste though and I do remember that they add an almost imperceptible nutty taste to whatever dish you add them to. Have you noticed that?

Carolyn's Mom

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Your instructions for making this crustless quiche are pretty poetic yourself. Maybe anchovies have that effect on people? :) Regardless, I can't wait to try it!

linda said...

i really need to host a brunch…very soon…you have given us so many beautiful sweet & savory recipes for a wonderful sunday with friends…
your kale & onion crustless quiche is a must!

from his childhood... my husband still enjoys anchovies on a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

Midtagessen said...

I slip an anchovy or two in beef or lamb stews or braises. You are so on the money...it adds a saltiness and a can't put my finger on it flavor.

Sasa said...

What a beautiful (and funny!) ode to Luisa's...curatorial skills. I have mushrooms and spinach and was planning to make quiche tonight. I might buy some anchovies too, you're pretty convincing your own self, lady.

Luisa said...

You are adorable. I'm blushing hard! This post is so lovely. Hooray for anchovies! xo

Žiupsnelis Druskos said...

Anchovies + chilli flakes + garlic + purple sprouting broccoli + a dash of cream + wholegraine penne + toasted pine nuts = a pasta dish you can never get enough! Dangerously tasty :)

I loooove your writing!!

Rogue Unicorn said...

sigh. just yesterday I was longingly looking at some anchovies in the supermarket. I think I'm going to start sneaking them into various foodstuffs (like Marcella Hazan's sauce). I'm sure my anchovy-hating sister will be converted. Right?
And oh, kale. I could really use some kale in my life right now.

Lael Hazan @educatedpalate said...

A few good ingredients done well yield the best dishes. That is the mantra that I've learned from my mother-in-law, Marcella Hazan. She really is as straightforward in person as in her writing. Of course, Louisa is lovely too.

Marcella would thank you for remembering her, she is always surprised and gratified.

Thank you for a lovely post. Our favorite way of eating anchovies: grilled, straight from being caught off the coast of Marcella's hometown of Cesenatico in Italy. They are succulent and one eats them like corn on the cob. I also like Cefali in umido, anchovy with chicory.

jacqui | happyjackeats said...

That last photo is just great, Jess. I don't eat anchovies much, for no good reason, really. I do love a good tin of sardines, though. Do you have any suggestions for good anchovies I can get at the grocery store?

molly said...

Air traffic controller, indeed! Spot-on, as always.

I've come around these past few years to anchovies, and come around hard, mostly all tumbled with greens. Many ways to skin that cat, but my most favorite is sauteed with olive oil, chili, anchovies, garlic, blitzed to a puree, and tucked onto crostini. (Here: http://www.remedialeating.com/2010/03/mind-games.html#tp).

Jess said...

Thanks for the link to your post, Sophie, (I want that salad!) and for the white anchovy tip. I often buy marinated anchovies from the fresh fish counter. They are, indeed, milder than the anchovies packed in oil and salt. I wonder if they are the "white anchovies" you speak of. I've never tried cooking with them. I like to eat them as they are, on Triscuits!

Hi, Gail. Yes, go forth and buy kale! My favorite is the kind with the flat (as opposed to curly) leaves. It's called lacinato, or dinosaur kale. Another way to prepare it is to tear the leaves away from the stems, rinse, and spin dry -- but not too thoroughly. You want a little bit of water to cling to the leaves to facilitate the steaming. Then, prepare according to the recipe in this post, minus the onions, and finish with a squeeze or two of lemon juice and a generous pinch of sea salt.

I fear that I may have accidentally misled you when I wrote "anchovies packed in salt." There are, in fact, anchovies packed in salt, and only salt, out there, and anchovy snobs will tell you that they are the only way to go. But for cooking, I actually use anchovies packed in oil and salt. In other words, anchovies packed in very salty oil. I just buy the Roland brand in tins or jars. Brett has some interesting things to say about all of this over on his blog In Praise of Sardines.

I've never cooked with anchovy paste, but I'd like to.

Thanks, A Plum By Any Other Name. Yes, it must be the anchovies. They are inspiring little buggers...

Hi, Linda. You just inspired me to put together a brunch menu in my head with this quiche as the centerpiece. I'm thinking David Lebovitz's sugar-crusted popovers that I mentioned in this post, or maybe this soda bread, and this granola, with yogurt and fresh fruit. Ah, that sounds good.

Midtagessen - You know, it makes me wonder if sworn anchovy haters would even detect the anchovy-ness in the dishes you describe...

Hi there, Sasa. Your mention of a potential mushrooms and anchovies combination just set off bells and whistles in my head. Yes! That sounds perfect.

Hooray for you, L. xo.

Hello, Žiupsnelis! Now that sounds delicious. A cousin of that spicy broccoli and pasta dish from last time, perhaps... Thanks for your kind words about my writing. It means a lot.

I think you should try her, Tiki. The anchovies in that sauce transform, and I wonder if your sister would even notice that they're in there. Try it. I think all she'll taste is goodness.

Hello, Lael. It was such a happy surprise to find your name here. Fresh, grilled anchovies in Cesenatico? What an image. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. "Like corn on the cob..." I'd love to eat anchovies that way, one day.

Thanks, Jacqui. As I said to Gail, above, I buy Roland anchovies, which I don't think are considered to be very fancy. Check out that link up there for some additional suggestions. I think you'd like the marinated ones, too. I get them at the fish counter at our local Whole Foods.

Molly! I just popped over to your post and wow, I must try that. Thanks so much for the inspiration, friend.

Alan Divack said...

What a wonderful post. I can't wait to try the recipe, which combines two of my favorite ingredients, anchovy and lancinato kale.

One quibble is that I don't know if salt-packed anchovies are worth the effort. I find the kind packed in jars, rather than tins, more than adequate.

Like Mitagessen above, I often put them in meat also. See my recipe for lamb shank ragu, which relies heavily on anchovies to bring out the umami in the dish:

Jess said...

Hi, Alan. It looks like we were posting our comments at the same time. As I wrote a few minutes ago, I'm with you on the oil-packed anchovies. Take a look at that post on In Praise of Sardines (I linked to it in my reply to Gail, above). We're not alone.

Alan Divack said...

We did just cross. In Marcella Hazan's first book she talked about buying salt-packed anchovy and filleting them yourself before leaving them in olive oil. My tolerance for spending time in the kitchen exceeds that of most primates, but even I decided that life was too short for this! Besides, I live with an anchovy hater and have to sneak them into dishes. I can just imagine how she would react to the smell if I prepared them myself. One day I may try though. Colman Andrews goes into even more depth on anchovies in his Catalan cookbook, and even includes a recipe for fried anchovy bones. Maybe in my next life.

The praise of sardines posting was quite nice -- thank for pointing out the link. And, BTW, the jar in my fridge is also Roland.

tara said...

I think we can all say "thank you Luisa Weiss" now and again. A smart cookie, that one. Just like you.

Anchovies just went on the grocery list.

Catherine said...

I'm afraid to say I couldn't share a single anchovy tip- I'm yet to cook with them (to my knowledge I've never actually even eaten one), but I think if anything could convince me to give it a go it would be this quiche! It looks absolutley delicious and I'm looking forward to remedying my anchovy-less life with it.

Leah said...

One of my favorite ways to use anchovies is in pasta all puttanesca. It's not one of those subtle anchovy dishes, but it's delicious.
This recipe is pretty good: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Spaghetti-alla-Puttanesca-241131
One of the best things about puttanesca is that you can always have all of the ingredients on hand, so you can whip up a quick meal that actually seems rather special.

Jess said...

Alan - I haven't seen Colman Andrews's Catalan cookbook, but I'll have to check it out. Fried anchovy bones?!

Hello, dear Tara! (I say my fair share of "thank you, Taras," too, you should know.) xo.

Hi, Catherine. I think this quiche would make an excellent starter anchovy dish. And so would the sauce that I referenced in this post. In both recipes, the anchovies hover somewhere in the background and help the other ingredients shine. May your life be anchovy-less no more!

Thanks so much for the link to the recipe, Leah. It's right up my alley. I've printed it out, and it's officially on deck. I love it when a quick (to prepare) meal and a special meal are one and the same. I think anchovies often dress things up a bit and add to the specialness factor. They're like the pearl earrings of tiny tinned fish!

Stephanie said...

I have yet to cook with anchovies (does putting them in my Caesar dressing count?). Perhaps you will be my Luisa Weiss. Lovely photographs, Jess. My favorite part of about your pictures is that they feel lived in, if that even makes sense. Real life, real eating, real cooking. Always a pleasure making a stop in your virtual kitchen.

Jess said...

Stephanie, thank you so much. That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my photos. And yes, I saw that dressing recipe on your blog and I think it definitely counts.

Sara said...

I had a can of salt-packed anchovies about 2 years ago and loved them. But I had a hard time going through a whole kilo and have not gotten around to buying any since. (Oh to be in Italy, where Marcella says you can just buy them as needed from the tin!) This is inspiring me to buy them again though. Where you get yours (as I see we are sort of neighbors...I think I will always be nostalgic for Cambridge!)

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

I'm loving all of this anchovy goodness. You asked for an anchovy trade, so here you go. Rachel taught me about anchovy crumbs in this fabulous recipe http://racheleats.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/oh-crumbs/ and I've been using them ever since. Like you, I've successfully used panko. Enjoy.

Notcathy said...

Hi Jess,

Wow, that was another great recipe that I'll need to try.. My husband and I loves to cook, but he's a good cook compared to me.. LOL! He likes to cook mostly Italian and Asian foods. By the way, I like your writing in your blog, very informative and interesting to read as well as the recipe's are all extraordinary.

More Cowbell said...

This is really way after the fact, but I couldn't resist your anchovy challenge. I use anchovies in salad dressings, from as simple as:
olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, garlic, maybe mustard, maybe not
to something richer:
feta cheese, lots of fresh ground pepper, lots of garlic and quite a few anchovies, olive oil, vinegar (optional: a little sour cream or mayo to make it creamier) -- the dressing should be thick like a Roquefort.
And I swap the oil and vinegar in the above for butter to make a compound butter that's great on grilled fish, steak, green beans...heck, I bet it would be good on some nice crispy grilled or toasted bread topped with tomato or cucumber, ooh, or an apple wedge.
And finally, I make a sort of Tartar Sauce with Mayo, sour cream, capers, lots of garlic and quite a few anchovies, which is great with a whole poached salmon or plain old fish sticks. You can also change it's character by adding a bunch of fresh tarragon and parsley.
I use a lot of anchovies, and umami is exactly the word, especially when paired with garlic.
That's a pretty good list, considering I just finished dinner. It's harder to think of recipes when you're not hungry. ;)