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Anchovies and breadcrumbs

"Parmesan of the poor" Sicilian saying

Anchovies are one of those foods that people either love or hate. In this household we have one of each. Which is awkward. It's OK when it comes to pizza because I can just make two different pizzas, but if it's a recipe that involves anchovies it's somewhat more difficult. I have to ask myself whether the anchovies will remain more or less hidden, just adding that indefinable something to the completed dish or whether the flavour will dominate. For let's face it, the flavour is pretty dominant. So far I have only tried to sneak them into tomato sauce occasionally and then only with the smallest amount of anchovy, but today I have discovered anchovy breadcrumbs and may well give them a whirl.

I am tempted because of having only fairly recently discovered the joy of fried crisp breadcrumbs on pasta.

I think I first discovered them in a recipe for orechiette with broccoli in a tomato sauce, topped with breadcrumbs from Beverley Sutherland-Smith. We both agreed that it was the crunch of the breadcrumbs which made the dish. So today when I was pondering on what to write about, I somehow or other came across Rachel Roddy - The Guardian's Italian correspondent - talking about breadcrumbs:

"Living in Rome with a Sicilian has meant that I have discovered so many ways with breadcrumbs that they have become a way of life in the kitchen."

Although I began with The Guardian it was actually a post, reproduced on the Goodreads website from her earlier blog that inspired my venture into anchovies and breadcrumbs. She called it Indignant Crumbs - the 'indignant' coming from the anchovies:

"Anchovy breadcrumbs are – I think – inspired. Breadcrumbs (soft or hard ones depending on your preference) are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now you know how we are often reassured the fishiness of anchovies will slide away like an obedient manservant leaving just the wonderful seasoning: this is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, it’s fishy, saltiness making the golden crumbs taste like nubs of Umami that shout I am an anchovy breadcrumb. Rest assured, if you hate anchovies you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies however, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow." Rachel Roddy

I then rapidly discovered that there is a Sicilian dish of spaghetti tossed in these anchovy breadcrumbs - well actually two. The one that Rachel Roddy is talking about and the main subject of this post is pasta c'anciova - which is one of those hugely simple Italian pasta dishes with just a very few ingredients, but potentially difficult to pull off - mostly because of getting the sauce creamy enough at the end - butter and pasta cooking water is the secret I think. Her article Indignant Crumbs describes the process in detail and then gives a recipe at the end. However, I fear I won't be trying it out because of David's hatred of anchovies, and because it doesn't sound as if the taste would fade into the background. The taste is the thing.

"Anchovies are fish, and when eaten alone, they taste like fish, but the saltiness and umami flavor stand out when incorporated into a pasta sauce." Diana Rattray/The Spruce Eats

Nevertheless I spread my net across the web and found vast numbers of variations - although not one, surprisingly enough, from Ottolenghi. Nor for anchovy crumbs which I can't quite believe. I would have thought it would have been a very Ottolenghi thing.

I found that some people mixed their anchovies in with their breadcrumbs, some kept them separate. Some people added extras such as chilli, lemon, parsley and cheese and since some of these people were true Italians, or Italian experts who am I to argue and claim on version over another? Try them all, even experiment with your own ideas. So here are a selected few:

Spaghetti with anchovies, dried chilli and pangrattato/Jamie Oliver; Pasta with breadcrumbs and anchovies/Woks of Life; Pasta with anchovy, lemon and breadcrumbs/Rachel Roddy - a second version of hers and Paula Wolfert's Pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs, Sicilian style. These are those that were closest to the basic premise of those three ingredients - pasta, anchovies, breadcrumbs.

Then there were a couple which went a bit further with other additions - Sicilian pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs/Sasha Marx of Serious Eats who added tomato passata to the mix, and Pasta con le sarde from Giorgio Locatelli which may well be a different dish altogether, but was close enough for me to include it here. I guess it just shows how one dish morphs into another.

Those anchovy breadcrumbs have a myriad of other uses though. Just sprinkle them on top of a whole lot of vegetables - an example Beans with anchovy crumbs from Sarah Hobbs/Taste - but other vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower were favourites, and you could sprinkle them over all sorts of other things - salads, gratins, bakes ...

Taking the idea of anchovies and breadcrumbs one step further again I found: Root gratin with anchovy cream and breadcrumbs/Thomasina Miers; Deep-fried anchovies in dill breadcrumbs/Janni Kyritsis and Jonathan Barthelmess/Gourmet Traveller (there were a few versions of this) and Rachel Roddy again with Broccoli with anchovy butter and breadcrumbs.

The anchovy butter that Rachel Roddy talks about here, is another thing that you can make and store in your fridge, using the last of that oil in your tin of anchovies - I have some so I am going to have a go:

"Make the anchovy butter: drain the oil from the tin of anchovies and pulse or pound in a food processor or mortar with the garlic, a pinch of red chilli flakes and the lemon zest, until you have a sludgy paste. Then melt the butter in a small pan and either pour it directly into the food processor and pulse again, or add to the mortar. Taste and add lemon juice and salt, if you think it needs it. Add a large spoonful to steamed or boiled (and well-drained) broccoli. Pour the rest into a jar with a lid and chill until it sets firm – and becomes a firm favourite." Rachel Roddy

She tells us that some people just spread it on toast - or some spread it before topping with things like the broccoli, which was steamed. But:

"the temperature of the toast is crucial; you want it not so hot that the butter melts and escapes off the edges, nor so cool that it stays opaque, but rather somewhere in the middle, where it’s warm enough for the butter to sink in, but not away." Rachel Roddy

Oh, and I also found another dish called Tortini di alici - also from Sicily, although the Ligurians also seem to have a similar thing. Here I think fresh anchovies are layered with breadcrumbs, sometimes formed into cake shapes. Lots of variations and maybe worth a look some time.

But as I say, none of these, unfortunately are going to be made here anytime soon.


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