Anchovies & Capers
by Kate Heyhoe
Ciao! September 2002 is Italian Food Month at Kate's Global Kitchen
Americans love Italian food. It's our favorite cuisine, as so many surveys and cookbook sales figures indicate, and tends to be a loved around the world as well. But how many of us enjoy the nuances that make Italian food as authentic as the kind you actually get in Italy? Care and quality typify the Italian dishes that seem so simple yet taste so divine.
If you want to replicate the most sublime dishes Italy has to offer, go to a real Italian deli and dig into their best kept secrets—authentic imported ingredients. It's not just the quality of the ingredients themselves, but it's the way the Italians prepare, package, and preserve their ingredients that makes such a huge difference.
For instance, a can of tuna may be good for kids and cats here, but in Italy, canned tuna is a sophisticated ingredient, cut in large chunks from the center of the fish, packed in fine virgin olive oil (not water or vegetable oil), and ready to eat as is, in pasta or salad (preferably without mayonnaise). Better yet are the glass jars of tuna, which prevent any metallic taste from affecting the rich, meaty flavor.
Italians are adept at preserving their beloved native foods in oils, brines or dry-packed in salt. Anchovies in little cans, preserved in oil, are commonly found in all supermarkets, but only in Mediterranean deli's (Italian, Greek, Spanish) do you find the more flavorful salt-packed anchovies.
Layered in large tins, about the size of cookie tins, salt-packed anchovies are sold by the pound at the deli counter, so you don't have to buy a lifetime supply all at once. They have a firmer texture and more distinct flavor than oil-packed anchovies, but you must rinse them of the surface salt before using, otherwise they're much too salty to enjoy. Never having used salt-packed anchovies before, I was, at first, intimidated about buying them. For unlike oil-packed anchovies, they require a bit of preparation, but I discovered that it's a quick, easy process, and the meatiness and distinctive flavor of the salt-packed anchovies make the process well worthwhile.
Italians also salt-pack capers, in addition to brining them and packing in a vinegary solution. Capers are the pungent green buds of a bushy Mediterranean vine. They range from the tiniest, known as nonpareils, to large ones known as caper berries. They add a sharp, piquant flavor to dishes, much like a pickle. Capers packed in vinegar and brine take on the tart, acidic flavor of the liquid, which can be enhance a dish. Salt-packed capers have more pure caper taste, but they can be very, very salty and must be well rinsed before using.
Whenever you use any ingredient preserved in salt, hold back on adding additional salt to the dish until you've tasted it. Salty ingredients often add enough of their own seasoning to eliminate the need for more salt.
Preparing Salt-Packed Anchovies
Rinse the anchovies well under cool water. Take a nibble. If they're still excessively salty, soak them in milk or water for 5 minutes. (Don't oversoak them, or they'll turn mushy.) Rinse and pat the anchovies dry before continuing.
To separate anchovies into fillets, you need to remove the fins, head, backbone and tail. Lightly grasp the head, which is attached to the backbone. Pull the head up and back towards the tail, lifting the backbone and one fillet off the fish as you go, leaving one fillet on your cutting board. With a small knife or your fingers, gently lift the remaining fillet from the bone. Nip off the fins. If the fish is headless, simply peel up the backbone while holding the sides and remove the tail and fins. If you wish to remove the skin, scrape it off with a knife or rub it off under running water.
Anchovies and capers packed in salt are wonderfully intense, so use them sparingly and preferably without a lot of competing flavors. The recipes below showcase them in typical Italian manner—simple, straightforward, and absolutely delicious.
Kate's Global Kitchen for August-September 2002:
08/30/02 More Grilling, All Year Long
09/06/02 "Meating" the Italian "Salumeria"
09/13/02 Cooking Up an Italian Life
09/20/02 Savoring Salt-Packed Anchovies & Capers
09/27/02 The Little Italian Cookbook, Revised
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created August 2002