Anchovies: you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em, especially in their preserved form – salted or in oil, in which they are only for aficionados of hard-core fishiness. I love them, but I must admit, it took a few years to acquire the taste. They’re one of the first things you’re likely to come across in Messina, part of the traditional focaccia topping of tomatoes, tuma cheese and escarole. Their salty, primeval kick can become addictive.
In their fresh state, however, they are a completely different kettle of fish, quite literally, and although they pop up in various recipes, the most popular ways of dispatching them are either marinated or fried, so I’m giving you both versions here. You could – and I did – make a whole meal out of them, serving the marinated fish as a starter and then following with a pile of the fried ones as a main course.
I’ve tried various methods for marinating them over the years, based principally on lemon juice. In part because this seemed more traditional (and most recipes I found used solely lemon juice), but mainly because my kids refuse to eat anything with vinegar. This time, I decided the kids could like it or lump it; I was convinced anchovies needed vinegar to offset their richness – lemon juice didn’t have enough of a tang. Lemon juice also leaves the fish greyish and translucent. In past experiments, I even tried removing the fish from the lemon juice marinade and putting it in a fresh batch for a further few hours, but it made no difference; it remained raw looking and vaguely slimy. And in my experience, raw looking and vaguely slimy is a bit of a turn-off. Vinegar, meanwhile, firms them up and turns them white. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were cooked. This also makes them more attractive to those who are a bit unsure about eating raw fish. I can tell you the lemon-vinegar combination works perfectly. They are so delicious that my children have also decided that contrary to their own convictions, they don’t mind vinegar, actually…
What you do need, if you want to save yourself time and very smelly hands, is an obliging fishmonger. Here, thankfully, anchovies are often sold on sheets of transparent paper, already beheaded, gutted, deboned and butterflied.
Once this rather messy work has been done for you, they are simplicity itself to prepare.
- 500g anchovies, uncleaned weight
- Juice of one large lemon
- 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Handful of fresh mint or parsley (or a mixture of the two), chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil
Remove head, gut and butterfly anchovies, removing central spine in process (thanks Mr fishmonger) wash and dry. Marinate for at least three hours in the lemon juice and vinegar, but up to 24. Remove from marinade and season, sprinkle with herbs and drizzle over oil
- 500g anchovies, uncleaned weight
- 200g flour, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 500 ml oil for frying
- Lemon wedges for serving
Remove head, gut and butterfly anchovies, removing central spine in process (thanks again Mr fishmonger). Wash and dry, then throw into flour. Toss them about until well coated, then fry them in fairly small batches in a deep pan of hot oil, shaking off excess flour before lowering them into the pan. As each batch is golden, remove with slotted spoon and drain on kitchen roll. Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze over and eat immediately.
Fried fish is a perfect match for bubbly; an Etna sparkler would go well here if you can get hold of one. You want something fairly dry and not too aromatic, to cut through the natural oiliness of the anchovies, so if you can’t go Sicilian, opt for a Franciacorta from Lombardy rather than a Prosecco. Cava would also work.