I rarely come across fresh anchovies, so when I spotted some in a local fishmonger (Moxon’s in East Dulwich), I greedily snapped up three big handfuls, cheap as chips at £2.something for the lot. Being an anchovy obsessive, the thought of eating them in a new way was almost a bit much for me; I couldn’t get home fast enough. “You can cook them just like whitebait” the fishmonger advised. “Really?” I countered, “their heads look a bit big to eat.” I think we must have had our wires crossed somewhere because every recipe I looked at told me to remove the heads and gut them. In the end, I turned to that fount of all food knowledge, The Larousse Gastronomique and it didn’t let me down, providing clear instructions on how to clean and fry my most favourite of fishes. We were off.
The obvious accompaniment to the anchovies would be tartare sauce, but I’d picked up a jar of preserved limes recently at one of my best-loved local stores – Khan’s in Peckham. The sign above the shop never fails to make me smile: “walk in and see the variety”. Thing is, Khan really ain’t kidding. If he sells beans then he sells every kind of bean you can think of. Same with oils, halloumi style cheeses and, to my sheer delight, pickles. So many different kinds of pickles. I had to check myself and make a pact to buy only one pickle a month, otherwise things could get very out of hand. As you move towards the back of the store though, aside from meeting with every kind of dried pulse imaginable, things start to get a bit weird. I’ve never been right back there and I’m not sure if I might get swallowed up, into some kind of Peckham Narnia. One day, one day.
Anyway, the limes. They basically taste like the lime pickle you would eat with a curry, but milder and without the heavy spicing, so I decided to use them in place of lemon juice or other acidity in my mayo. I also chucked in a birds-eye chilli from the garden, a good fat clove of garlic and some parsley found lying around looking a bit sorry for itself. A bit of elbow grease and light chopping later, and a fine dipping sauce was created.
The anchovies were beheaded and gutted before being gently wiped clean. The Larousse instructs not to wash the anchovies, as their flesh is very delicate; I found this to be very sound advice. They were then dipped in milk followed by seasoned flour and fried until golden brown. We piled them high on plates, squeezed a generous amount of lemon on top and dunked and dipped into the spicy lime mayo. They didn’t last long. Crispy yet large enough to retain a bit of soft flesh inside, they were like whitebait but ten times better, what with being anchovies and all. We devoured the lot in minutes and I’m actively seeking out my next fix.
I now have a large jar of limes of course which I’ve been steadily working my way through. I’ve had success with a piquant dressing for halloumi mixed with some chilli and mint and I’ve plans for a stuffed mackerel this weekend which will incorporate them also. After all, I need to get through the jar just so I can justify buying my next pickle.
Deep Fried Anchovies
First, prepare your anchovies by cutting off their heads and removing the guts. It is easiest to remove the guts with your fingers. Do not try to do this under the tap as the flesh of the anchovy is very delicate, and will break. Chris also had some success twisting the head off, in which case the guts tend to come out at the same time. Just get in there and give it a go I say. If they need further cleaning, give them a little wipe.
Begin heating some oil for deep frying. Tip some plain flour onto a plate and season generously with salt and pepper (fresh anchovies are not as salty as the canned ones) and also have a bowl of milk to hand. Dip each anchovy first into the milk then roll in the seasoned flour. Deep fry, in small batches and drain on kitchen paper. Pile high and serve with the spicy mayo.
Spicy, Preserved Lime Mayo
Take two egg yolks and a fat garlic clove crushed with a pinch of salt. Mix these together in a bowl. Next take about 250-300ml oil of your choice (I often use light olive oil (it needs to be light) but I sometimes also use groundnut, as it is flavourless) and begin adding this to the yolk mixture, a few drops at a time, whisking each few drops in until they are fully incorporated before adding the next. Then, once the mayonnaise starts to get a bit thicker, start adding the oil a little bit faster, whisking all the time. Keep adding oil to the desired thickness (if you think my mayo looks a bit thin in the above picture then you are right, I ran out of oil).
If the mayonnaise splits, take a fresh egg yolk (in a fresh bowl) and begin adding the split mixture to it, a little at a time, as you did with the oil. This should bring it back.
Stir in some chopped parsley, chilli, 1 finely diced pickled lime and black pepper and add more salt if necessary. You could just use some lime or lemon juice or something like white wine vinegar if you do not have the pickled lime.