Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Praise of Salt

I've never really been one for sweets. Savory was always more my bag. I don't know what it is about salt that just calls out to me. It could be because I'm Jewish, but I'm not going to start getting stereotypical here. I'm often singing the praises of sodium, and when I mentioned to my roommate, Emily, that I was thinking of writing an ode to salt for my next entry, she went ahead and wrote the following:

there once was a shaker of salt
i saw it and couldn't find fault
it made things delish
especially fish
i would not put it in a malt

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I first tasted the salty wonder of anchovies over the summer. They just get a really bad rap, much like Brussels sprouts, which I think, sadly is what took me so long to first give them a chance. I never fell for this with Brussels sprouts, but it was probably a combination of their reputation and my history with fish that kept me away. Their mere existence on a pizzeria menu is puzzling to every child; it's just beyond comprehension to a ten year old to put tiny fish fillets on an otherwise perfect piece of pizza. They're a true grown-up taste. I've grown to really, really like anchovies recently - they have a fantastic salty taste without being briny like clams and oysters. The can impart the perfect amount of salt to a dish without overpowering the rest of the ingredients with their fishiness.

I read a tragic tale not that long ago about a culinary jaunt gone horribly awry. A pot of boiling water was dropped on a foot, a painful burn the result. But the pasta Adam made just looked so good, and the ingredients were so simple and straightforward that I could almost taste it. I felt that his enjoyment was slightly (read: probably fully) compromised by the fact that he had been severely injured by the very pasta he was then supposed to enjoy. Adam himself recognized this bias. You wouldn't ask a woman who had been beaten to be on the very jury that was supposed to decide her attacker's guilt, nor would you want a food critic to review a restaurant whose chef he knew was having an affair with his wife. I think you know what I'm getting at here. So I figured I'd give it a go. The bottom line is that the simplicity of the ingredients in this dish seemed that they would impart the perfect amount of saltiness to balance with the heartiness of the pasta and the chickpeas.

Penne with Anchovies and Chickpeas (adapted from the Amateur Gourmet)

The recipe is incredibly easy, and I took Adam's suggestion to add garlic to the sauce. I just took twelve anchovies, mashed them with some salt and two medium-sized cloves of garlic with a fork. Then I added two small stalks of diced celery and the liquid from the can of chickpeas and the sauce was done. It was easy enough. Once the penne was done cooking, I drained it and put it back in the pot with the sauce, the chickpeas, a decent amount of coarsely ground pepper and some parmigianno regianno cheese. The sauce was a bit too liquidy for my taste though, so I turned the heat back on low and let the sauce cook down and thicken up, stirring pretty often. By the time the sauce was to my liking, the anchovies had disintegrated, as anchovies are wont to do, so I finely chopped another one and sprinkled it with some more grated parmigianno on top of the pasta once it was in my bowl.

When all was said and done, I really enjoyed the dish. Cooking the sauce with the pasta was definitely necessary, since it allowed the sauce to adhere to the pasta. If I hadn't done that, the sauce would have all sat idly at the bottom of the bowl - this way it gave flavor to the pasta. I'm not really sure the celery was necessary, but it didn't offend my palate in any way. The anchovies made their presence known with their salty pop, even though they were no longer visible in the sauce. The chickpeas gave the meal substance and are what ultimately made the small bowl I made for myself incredibly filling. The pasta was hearty without being complex. I would make this again in a heartbeat; it's healthy, fast and incredibly cheap to make. It's also delicious, which doesn't really hurt its case. The ingredients are so straightforward and the dish is seasoned with only salt and pepper, so you know exactly what you're getting. And if you're in the mood for something salty, this should hit the spot.

1 comment:

Stephen A. Weisberg said...

Anchovies have always sounded really sick to me (my dad likes them a lot), and I'd still venture to guess that they are, but your analysis might lead me to try them. The dish also looks really good, which may have added to my curiosity. You know that I LOVE BEANS and those Garbanzos look mighty tasty in that pasta.