As an official East coaster for at least one more year, I decided that I should visit some bayside locations. My dad’s family is from the East coast, so as a child, we visited Boston and Hampton Beach a couple times for leisurely vacations. I always loved and loathed the sand at Hampton, but the seaside feeling of a summer town was indescribable. Now that I actually enjoy eating seafood, I was sure that I would have even better carefree memories in Baltimore. My thoughts: “Chesapeake Bay here I come!”
My parents were able to come out for several days, and boy did we have fun…and a lot of food. The weather was just beginning to thaw out (it hit 60 one day!), so it was optimal timing to enjoy walking around without exceptional touristy crowding. Our trip of course included a morning at the aquarium, tours of historic ships in the harbor, a day trip to Washington D.C., and casual strolling and shopping (for which my father was extremely patient). It was made complete with bottles of wine and glasses of B&B. We ate our way through several areas in Baltimore and had no shortage of fish.
I am lucky enough to be close enough to the coast that fresh seafood is a possibility. My parents, on the other hand, only have access to the lake fish most of the time. So I am sure that they are going through seafood withdrawals. My solution for them? Anchovies!
Please stop cringing. Stop it. Right now.
Anchovies are delightful fish that are very easily preserved. The key is to know how to use them so that they do not overpower the dish with their strong flavor. Anchovies are basically full of savory taste. In fact, they have previously been described as “pure umami.”
Umami is the fifth taste (the others are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). It was disputed for quite some time for a couple reasons. The first is that the four tastes had been cemented in the scientific community for centuries. It is very difficult to challenge the status quo in science. The second is that the idea of umami came from one Japanese scientist. Dr. Ikeda posited that flavors in Japanese cuisine from concentrated soups like dashi or fermented condiments like soy sauce cannot be explained through any of the four tastes. Western scientists often see their ideas as more superior than those from Eastern scientists, so Ikeda was largely ignored. Legendary French Chef Auguste Escoffier came along at around the same time and tasted something similar to Ikeda in his newly invented veal stock.
It took over 100 years, but scientists took a second look at the basic tastes and indeed saw a fifth taste. Talk about swallowing your words. The fifth taste, which had been recognized by Eastern cultures and called “umami” (which literally means yummy) for quite a long time was finally a thing in the West. It just recently became a part of the textbooks.
When a taste bud receives a free amino acid, the building block of proteins, the signal is synapsed onto a neuron and sent to the brain. The brain recognizes that amino acid as a necessary nutrient and sends a happy signal out. That is why umami is hard to explain as a delicious savory flavor. Glutamate, particularly L-glutamate, is the most heavily recognized amino acid through this umami recognition system. Amino acids are breakdown products of proteins. This breakdown is usually encountered in cooked meats and fermented products. NPR does a great job of explaining the different ways it is created: “on a stove when you cook meat, over time when you age a parmesan cheese, by fermentation as in soy sauce or under the sun as a tomato ripens.” Anchovies are full of glutamates often concentrated during the curing process. They have a lot of horsepower in the arena of umami. That is why anchovies are common ingredients in dressings like Caesar and sauces like Puttanesca. I like the oil-packed anchovies—they have much less intense salt flavor.
Enjoy your fish! It might not be fresh, but it sure is extremely yummy. The rich cream cheese and butter balance out the salt while the sweet onions complement the strong fishy flavor. The toasted bread adds nutty notes (see Maillard Browning) and some bitterness.
Anchovy Onion Butter
Adapted from Food52
1 large onion, chopped
1 pinch sugar
6 anchovy filets
1 tablespoon anchovy oil (from the packed anchovies)
½ cup butter
1 oz cream cheese
1. Heat the oil and sugar in a large pan for several minutes. Make sure the sugar does not caramelize much before you add the onions. When hot, add the onions and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about an hour until they are browned and soft.
2. Dice the anchovy filets (I finely chopped, but slightly bigger pieces would work better next time) and add to the onion mixture. Take off of the heat and let cool completely.
3. Whip the butter and cream cheese until fluffy. When the onion mixture is no longer warm (you don’t want it to melt the butter), add it to the butter/cream cheese and mix to combine.
4. Season with pepper and eat on toasted bread or melted over pasta.