A noisy salade is the sure cure for the season’s beige blahs.
The foods of winter are soft and silent as a long-cooked carrot in an Irish stew. Beige is the predominant culinary color this time of year, and while those developed flavors and melting textures offer endless comfort, sometimes you just need a little POP to wake things up.
Or, as in the case of this salad, maybe a big KA-BANG! If you’re not careful, it could wake up the neighbors.
What we’ve got here is basically a puree of garlic and anchovies, sharpened with a little vinegar and smoothed by good fruity olive oil. It’s tossed with matchsticks of crunchy celery, whose forceful, almost astringent flavor is almost the only thing you could possibly pair with a dressing this loud.
You can make this dressing in a blender, but I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way--in a mortar and pestle. A blender doesn’t really smash things, it cuts them into very fine pieces. (Chef Michel Richard “purees” citrus zest and water in a blender. When he drains away the water, what’s left is a tiny confetti of citrus that’s perfect for decorating tarts.)
And because blenders whip up a lot of air, they change the texture of food that’s pureed in them. Some time try making a tomato sauce in a blender and another in a food mill. You’ll see that the blender sauce has turned a light pink because of all the air that’s been pumped in.
Mostly, I suspect, I prefer mortars and pestles because I like the equipment. I’ve got a little collection of them, ranging from a chunky red and black Chicago Bulls molcajete to a graceful, ridged Japanese suribachi.
My favorite comes from Thailand and is carved from dark green granite. You can pay hundreds of dollars for an antique French mortar, or you can go to just about any grocery in Thai Town and pick one of these up for less than $40.
A good mortar is smooth on the inside and heavy enough that it doesn’t move around on the counter while you’re using it. The right pestle has heft, but it fits comfortably in your hand, the way the right knife does.
There’s no real trick to using one. You either pound or you grind. Pounding is done with up and down strokes to smash things or to break things up. Grinding is done with circular strokes--almost like stirring something really hard--to get a smooth texture.
Any single process usually takes a combination of the two. When grinding garlic into a paste, for example, you begin with up and down strokes to break the garlic into pieces. Then you switch to circular strokes to make it smooth. Always add a little salt when you’re pureeing garlic, whether you’re using a mortar and pestle or the blade of a knife, because it helps break down the tougher fragments.
Anchovies are another passion of mine, one that is probably shared by even fewer people than those who use mortars and pestles. I suspect the reason most people don’t like anchovies is that there are so many bad canned ones around. Try to find salted anchovies in Mediterranean markets. They come in 1 1/2-pound cans--enough to last forever.
Or almost. When my last tin emptied last spring, I had a couple of bland anchovy-less months. Then one day at the Torrance farmers market, the fish seller had a whole tray of fresh anchovies.
“Aha!” I said. “I’ll salt my own!” So I bought a couple of pounds and took them home, completely unintimidated by the fact that I had no earthly idea how to go about doing it.
I looked in cookbooks and found varying instructions of fairly intense detail. When I was just about to throw up my hands and give up on the whole thing, I read this passage in Patience Gray’s classic “Honey From a Weed” (now available in a nice paperback reprint from Lyons Press, $16.95):
“A Naxian farmer used to barter a quantity of splendid onions for a fresh haul of anchovies in autumn. He then sat at his door overlooking the harbor with a pile of fish, a large petrol can and a sackful of sea salt culled illicitly from the rocks, salt being a state monopoly. Assisted by his children and a gallon bottle of amber wine, he pulled the heads off the fish which at the same time removed the guts and laid the fish neatly in the petrol cans, alternating each layer with a layer of salt and finally putting a weighted board on top. In this way he provided himself and his large family with supper throughout the winter.”
Well, I figured, if some old Greek guy can put them up in a diesel fuel can, how much worse can I do? So I pinched off the heads (pull carefully and all the innards do come right along), then I gently fileted them with my thumb. It takes about as long to do as it does to read this paragraph.
As I finished an anchovy, I laid it on a layer of coarse salt on a jellyroll pan. When all the anchovies were done, I covered them all with another layer of salt. I put a cookie sheet on top and weighted it with a can of tomatoes. Then I let them sit overnight.
The next day, the salt had turned gray and cakey from the moisture sucked out of the anchovies. I rinsed the little fishies off and arranged them in layers in a glass jar, each layer separated by fresh salt. I added a bay leaf (partly because one book called for it, partly because I liked the way it looked).
That jar still sits on my counter, waiting to be dipped into whenever I feel the need for anchovies, which is fairly often. I have to say that the flavor of these anchovies is even better than the best commercial salted ones I’ve found. They are brighter, sweeter and meatier. Just the antidote for the beige of winter.