Last year, around this time, on the first anniversary of the launch of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries, I celebrated with a batch of Neck Bones Tomato Sauce, the recipe I shared on these pages (Neck Bones Anniversary Tomato Sauce). I don’t really consider myself a man of tradition, but when it comes to food, and eating, maybe I am. So to follow tradition, on this, the second anniversary of Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries, I have celebrated with another pasta sauce. This one is meatless, but to compensate any lack of flavor, doused heavily with that favorite little fish; the anchovy.
Speaking of traditions, the origin of my romance with the anchovy began with a Christmas Eve tradition. One of the seven fishes (Seven Fishes for Seven Dishes), prepared for that Italian feast in our family was the anchovy. My grandmother was the chef and when I was young, the featured pasta was spaghetti with anchovies.
But anchovy love doesn’t come easily or immediately. The sight, smell and taste of the little brown oily and spiny fillets could cause a child to retch. I wanted no part of it and I wasn’t alone. My brothers felt the same way and instead, on Christmas Eve, we had our spaghetti with just butter and Parmesan cheese.
Soon after experiencing puberty, our taste buds became more open minded and, though anchovies were still a tough sell, we graduated to the milder, white clam sauce. There was now a seafood alternative to coat the spaghetti with.
I can’t pinpoint the actual date when I converted, but it was sometime in early adulthood. Soon I was actually adding a few of those fillets into my white clam sauce. There was definitely something about that stinky fishy fish that was working magic in my mouth. Friends looked at me in horror when I began to, voluntarily, decorate my slices of pizza with the fillets. It wasn’t long before, given the choice on Christmas Eve, I would take the anchovy sauce before the white clam.
The romance was on and grows stronger with each year. There is no chance I eat spaghetti with anchovies just on Christmas Eve. It’s now a treat I prepare every couple of months—and a simple, inexpensive one at that.
I’m sure many of you might have a prejudice against the anchovy stemming from early encounters when, like me, your sense of taste just wasn’t ready for such an assault of flavor. Try to move past that prejudice and give the little fish another chance. And here, to lead you on to the path of anchovy righteousness is my recipe for Spaghetti with Anchovies.
1 small bottle of anchovies in olive oil.*
½ cup of olive oil
4-5 good-sized cloves of garlic, chopped into large pieces**
½ tsp of dried red pepper flakes or a few slices of fresh chili pepper (for this one I used a fresh chili from the garden)
2 tbs of chopped fresh Italian parsley
¼ cup of dry white wine or water
1lb of spaghetti
*Anchovies come in several forms. There are the tins or bottles in olive oil, or they can be bought packed in salt. The anchovies packed in salt are the most desired, but also the most expensive and most work. The salt packed anchovies need to be rinsed under cold water and then cleaned of the tail and whatever guts might still be attached. Sounds disgusting, but worth the effort in the long run. For this recipe, however, I used imported Italian anchovies from a jar and they’ll do just fine. The anchovies found in the tins work too, but are not quite up to the quality you will find in the jar or salt packed.
**The finer you chop or mince garlic, the stronger the taste. For this dish, which already is overflowing with flavor from the anchovies and red pepper, I like a milder taste from the garlic so I keep the pieces coarsely chopped, rather than fine.
In a skillet, heat the oil on a medium flame. Add the garlic, but do not brown. Toss in the red pepper, cook for a minute and then add the anchovies. There will be sizzling. Stir the anchovies around the oil, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add the white wine or water and lower the heat. Once the sauce simmers, stir again until the anchovies have melted into the liquid forming a brown, almost gravy-like sauce. It should look a little like the Piedmontese specialty bagna cauda. Taste and if it is too strong, add more water or wine.
Cook the spaghetti al dente, drain, and then add the sauce, topping with the fresh parsley. If you are an anchovy fanatic, like my father, you might want to also add a few extra uncooked fillets on top of your bowl.
Though the pasta police prohibit grated parmigiano Reggiano or Romano cheese on seafood sauces, if you choose to indulge, you have my word that I won’t report you.