Anchovies in the Pantry, Pleasure in the Pan

Most anchovy pastas are minimalist things, born out of desperation with ingredients from the pantry. The assumption is that if you had anything else in the house, you’d surely cook that instead.

But true anchovy lovers beg to differ. For us, when anchovies are the starting point of a dish, they’re also the star, making pasta so compelling that you won’t want to relegate them to those nights when there’s nothing in the fridge. You’ll want to make them all the time.

I certainly do, loading anchovies into my pasta pot at least two or three times a month. (Actually, rare is the pasta that doesn’t contain them.) I cook myriad variations, but the basic formula goes like this: Melt some anchovies and garlic into a pan of oil, then use that as the foundation for whatever sauce I want to build on.

In summer, there might be ripe tomatoes and herbs, or eggplant and peppers. In the fall, maybe mushrooms, butternut squash and brussels sprouts. In the cold pit of winter, where we are now, I like to use sturdy greens like broccoli rabe, kale or spinach, which add vibrancy to the anchovies’ umami funk.

In that last version, I also mix in some chopped cherry tomatoes for a little sweetness and color. Although I cook the anchovies and garlic in olive oil at the beginning of the dish, I stir in some butter at the end, which mellows the inherent bitterness of broccoli rabe and rounds out the sauce.

A fat dollop of ricotta gives the pasta some creaminess, which I always crave when the weather gets cold, but it’s not at all essential. And, while I love the saline tang of the capers, you can skip them if they are just one ingredient too many. With all those anchovies in the pan, you probably won’t even miss them.

About those anchovies, for a dish like this, you need to get the good ones. I think the reason so many people are anti-anchovy is that there are a lot of bad, fishy ones on the market. Look for those packed in olive oil, and sample different brands until you find one you like. Then, stock up. After all, a pantry filled with anchovies is the beginning of many amazing future meals — no matter what other ingredients you have in the house.

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