Right now massive shoals of anchovies are running along the California Coast. Look west and you can see pods of dolphins, rafts of sea lions, whales breaching, birds diving-it’s a silver scaled smorgasbord for sea creatures. A fishermen friend even reported seeing a Great White Shark jump from the water in all her toothy glory. She most likely wasn’t snacking on anchovies, but those who ate them. Humans don’t join in on this bounty as much as we should.
Little fish like smelt, herring, anchovies and sardines are delicious, super nutritious and very sustainable. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten a bad rap as “fishy-fish” and so instead of eating down the food chain, Americans consume more shrimp, tuna, and farmed salmon than anything else. The cultivation or fishing of shrimp, tuna and farmed salmon is often devastating to the ocean. In fact farmed “Atlantic” salmon is full of antibiotics; it’s mealy, soft flesh would be gray if not for the colorants added to their feed-which is made of ocean caught forage fish like the anchovy and wiping out whole eco-systems.
A report by Tacon and Metian published in the 2008 projected that the current ratio is 2.5 to 3 pounds of forage fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon. This ratio is problematic as we are now seeing herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovies being overfished throughout the world to be made into feed for salmon, tuna, industrial meat farms, and fertilizer. These small forage fish are critical parts of the larger food web; fish, mammals, and birds rely on the silver shoals of omega-three and protein rich small fish. Instead of feeding 3 pounds of anchovies to the farmed salmon, we should avoid farmed salmon and instead just eat 1 pound of anchovies, and leave the other 2 in the sea. Along with being sustainable, these little fish are inexpensive, super nutritious, delicious and store really well. The only catch? Cleaning them. Here’s one way to do it.
Step 1: Cut Off Heads & Tails and Take Out Guts
There is some controversy surrounding the cleaning of anchovies. You might want to try a few different approaches and see what works best for you. Some people scrape off the scale first. I used to, but I've stopped doing that and haven't noticed much of a difference.
I cut off the tail and the head, then slit open the belly and clean out the guts. However, some people claim to snap off the head, pulling the guts and spine off with it.
Step 2: Remove the Spine
This is simple, but seems to be the difference between the process going quickly or slowly. I've found that super-fresh fish are harder to work with and the spine seems more attached to the flesh. Leaving these in the fridge overnight helps the spine come out more smoothly.
Step 3: Salt Fillets
My friend, chef and writer, Andrea Blum came in to help. When she was visiting the town of Cetera, an anchovy hub on the Amalfi Coast, she learned to preserve them with salt & lemon juice. I've often followed the recipe in Preserving the Wild by Matthew Weingarten and Raquel Pelzel for boquerone style anchovies with salt and vinegar. I'll post both ways here-you really can't go wrong.
First, you'll salt the fillets. If you want to go with the light, lemon version, just put a light layer of salt over them. For boquerone style, layer the fillets in salt and slivers of garlic.
You can also just salt the anchovies, and then put them in a jar and use them later. I'll be posting a recipe for smoking them and then creaming them into butter.
Step 4: Add Acids: Lemon or Vinegar
If you are making the lemon anchovies, squeeze fresh lemon over them until they are completely covered, then put in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
If you are making boquerones, let the anchovies sit in the salt for 20 minutes, then cover them with white wine vinegar. Put them in the fridge overnight.
Step 5: Serve or Preserve
If you made the vinegar-boquerone version, leave these overnight, then rinse the anchovies and place them in a jar. Fill the jar with olive oil, a lemon rind, and a by leaf. These are wonderful on salads, deviled eggs, toast rounds, and just about anything.
If you went with the lemon juice version, pour olive oil on them, garnish with parsley and serve with crusty bread as an appetizer.