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Cooking from the World Pantry: Bagna Cauda

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Photograph by Maria Zizka

A jar of anchovies is a wise investment. Though the fish are small and take up little room in the pantry, they come packed with big flavor. You need only to add a fillet or two to Caesar salad dressing or pasta sauce to benefit from the anchovy’s briny blast.

The complex savory flavor and bold taste come about primarily as a result of a long curing process. Freshly caught anchovies, typically no bigger than the length of your hand, are gutted and headed, then layered with salt and left to cure at warm room temperature for six to ten months. Once cured, they can be ground and mixed with oil into a paste, or packed between fresh layers of salt in tins.

Many chefs favor purchasing salt-packed anchovies because, when the little fish are left on the bone, they retain a firm texture and a clear, undiluted flavor. However, salt-packed anchovies require a bit of work before they can be used in the kitchen. They must first be soaked in water until the flesh is soft and pliable. Next, the fillets are pulled off the bones, rinsed of excess salt, and finally patted dry.

After being filleted and cleaned, anchovies can be packed in oil and sold in this prepared form, which is often how you’ll find them at the market. Unless I plan on draping a whole fillet over a salad or across a piece of toast, I usually prefer oil-packed anchovies for their relative ease. It’s true their texture pales in comparison to that of the salt-packed fish, but it’s no matter if I plan on chopping them finely. When cooked, anchovies readily disintegrate, leaving only their richness and depth of flavor behind.

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Look for oil-packed anchovies in glass jars—all the better to see the quality of the fish—and make sure the ingredients list shows only anchovies, salt, and olive oil (not the lesser soybean oil). If you have bought more anchovies than you need at one time, which seems to always happen to me, you can repack any unused anchovy fillets in enough oil to submerge them and store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to one year. Alternatively, I find it’s easy and convenient to tightly wrap individual portions (of two or three fillets) in plastic and store them in the freezer. I reach for them any time I’m looking to add assertive saltiness to a dish.

 

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Photograph by Maria Zizka

 

Bagna Càuda

In this Northern Italian dipping sauce, anchovy meets its match in the form of nearly raw garlic. The two robust flavors are mellowed by olive oil and butter. Bagna cauda is meant to be served hot, and if you happen to have a candle you can rig up underneath the sauce to keep it warm, that’s ideal.

Makes about ½ cup, enough to serve 4 as a light lunch or first course

5 cloves garlic, peeled

Pinch of fine sea salt

10 anchovy fillets, rinsed, finely chopped

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup unsalted butter

 

Vegetables for dipping (such as sliced fennel, carrots, sweet peppers, and blanched green beans)

Using a mortar and pestle or the back of a large knife, pound the garlic and salt to a paste. Transfer to a small pot and add the anchovies, oil, and butter. Cook over very low heat until the butter has melted and the garlic has softened but not yet browned.

Serve hot, with chopped vegetables alongside for dipping.

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