Saturday, September 11, 2010

Something fishy

THE PLACE where we live at the moment is a very fortuitous spot, with the Adriatic lapping lazily at sand just 100 yards away from the front gate. In recent days the milling tourists of August have disappeared like smoke, to be replaced by the odd fisherman. These patient souls stand for hours on the foreshore, baited – and at night, illuminated – rods set up. As far as I can see, the catch is five-inch tiddlers of no note at all, but it does seem to fascinate them.

Ah, fish. My stomach began to rumble. Unfortunately I had neither the inclination nor the equipment to go and pull lunch from the briny. I had a fish round the fridge and larder instead, an expedition which yielded a jar of anchovies, garlic, onions, a tin of lentils and some liquid left over from a watery Filipino fish stew made by my wife a few days ago.

A short browse through easily-available Internet sources reveals that the term Anchovy refers to an entire family of diddy fish, of which there are around 140 species. Engraulidae is the name to drop, in case you ever want to be formally introduced. Engraulidae thrive in temperate or warm water, which means they can be found right across the globe. South-East Asian peoples love the Anchovy, making stock of it, deep frying it and fermenting it into sauces. Europeans on the other hand, tend to preserve their Anchovies first in brine, then salt or oil. This produces thin slices of highly salty, fishy loveliness that can be cut small and used to drive flavour into much blander material.

This is exactly what I planned to do. While lentils are great if you like a nice earthy flavour, and even greater if you seek a wide range of proteins, dietary fibre, folate, vitamin B and iron, they tend to need a bit of sexing up before they hit the dining table. We would have no boringness issues here, I reflected as I soft-fried onions and an excess of garlic before tipping in chopped anchoves and the tin of lentils. I set my wife’s stock to reducing like mad. It smelt fantastic. My wife is far from being an avid cook, but she does know how to use the Filipino packet sauces made by Mama Sita, which major in the use of the mysterious sourness of tamarind to add interest. To thicken the stock I threw in a little tomato passata, and kept the heat high.

Music, if you can get it in your kitchen, is a boon companion when cooking. Fancying a side-order of electronica I fired up the Ringer EP by brilliant London-based technician Four Tet (Kieran Hebden to his mother). Bing, bong and plingscapes mixed with the steam from reducing sauce. Excellent.

The sauce was united with the fishy lentils. I thought it needed rounding out, as northerly winds were blowing outside and bringing thoughts of coldness with them. So cayenne pepper, a little feta cheese and a good dash of nam pla were stirred in until the cheese had melted.

Nam Pla by the way, is Thai fish sauce. You can get it in small, expensive bottles in British supermarkets, or in large, cheap bottles from South-East Asian stores in major towns across Europe and America. It is made of fermented fish, usually any old stuff dragged in by the boats. Who knows? Who cares? The Squid Brand we use could even contain Anchovies. What it does, as my wife puts it, is “make everything taste good”.

The result of this trawl through the fridge was lovely – terracotta-coloured, earthen, rich, a little spicy and terribly warming. We ate it with rice, although brown bread or even fried potatoes would have been pretty good accompaniments. Hard-boiled eggs would have been an inspired addition, I realised far too late to do anything about the matter.

Best of all, I hadn’t had to spend hours standing on a beach in variable weather conditions, persuading a delicious, fishy dinner to come to my hook. I am more than happy to be converted to the way of the rod and maggot, but until that happens the glorious salted Anchovy will always have a place in the larder here.