Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's Talk Tian

True story: I eat so many anchovies, that one of the sous
chefs at the Cantina has literally started referring to me by my
new nickname, accigua (anchovy).  Literally.
He yells it when he sees me on the street.
I've made no secret of my deep love of anchovies.  In fact, I pride myself as something of their cultural ambassador.  All summer long, I find myself defending my favorite little fish to American tourists who are, rightfully so, traumatized by memories of overly salted, unrecognizable, mushy grey tins of the fish that we commonly see in the United States.  Anchovies are, in fact, not a salty fish, and though they are often prepared salted, as a means of preservation in leaner times, anchovies served with lemon or sauteed in a pan with white wine, garlic and herbs, really highlight the flavor of these white, soft fish.  They don't need to be salted all year round here (though they still can be, as people do enjoy them), but next to the sea, when they are caught fresh, the fish can really play a different role in many dishes.  In addition to the allure of eating local, anchovies are also really good for you.  They're very high in Omega 3 fatty acids, rockstars in delivering Vitamin A, and also good sources of Calcium, Selenium and Potassium.  Often confused with their bigger, herring-cousin the sardine, anchovies are without a doubt one of the shining stars of Ligurian cuisine, and one of my favorite culinary discoveries since first visiting the area.

The problem is I had no idea how to cook them.

Slicing and chopping away
Now, this could have been easily avoided, as Manuel's whole family is in the restaurant business and their restaurants serve anchovies prepared in a variety of preparations.  His grandmother is a phenomenal cook in that Italian grandmother "I know every recipe by heart and have been making them for 80 years" way, and I could have easily just hid out at their house anytime anchovies showed up for dinner.  However, when Manuel's father showed up at our house with a giant bowl of anchovies, I took one look at Manuel, and promptly informed him that he was in charge of all culinary responsibility for the next 24 hours.

Steaming on the stovetop
Excitedly, he got to work making tian, after a few phone calls to his grandmother and dad (Miky of Ristorante Miky).  Tian is a dialect word meaning tegame in standard Italian.  A tegame is a type of pan with sides - not as wide as a frying pan, but bigger then a saucepan, and with the same high walls.  This dish is officially called tian de anciue, or tian de vernazza (both in dialect), or tegame di acciughe di Vernazza, all of which point towards its origins in the Cinque Terre, specifically in our neighbor, Vernazza.  Manuel's grandmother and mother are from Vernazza, so I felt quite satisfied with the authenticity of our little tian-for-two, cooking happily on the stove.

Not surprisingly, considering its name, tian is cooked in a medium wide, walled pot on the stove, covered.  A dish with the same name is popular is southern France, specifically in Provence (which also isn't surprising considering their relative proximity in the scope of world geography), that is essentially a vegetable casserole, consisting of all sorts of provencal vegetables, like zucchini and tomatoes.  That's essentially what tian de anciue is - a one-pot wonder, a stove-top casserole of sorts, consisting of fresh anchovies, thinly sliced potatoes, tomatoes, onions, parsley, white wine, and lots of good olive oil.

We (read: Manuel) got to work cleaning the anchovies, which is the hardest and most tedious part.  Once their heads were removed (not as creepy as it sounds), our little fishy friends became one layer of our tian, alternating with the thinly sliced potatoes, chopped tomatoes, thinly sliced onions and diced parsley.  Then you keep layering - anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, parsley, until your pot is full.  Add a hefty drizzle of oil, a cup of white wine, salt and pepper, and put the lid on it and cook over medium heat until the fish is cooked and the vegetables (specifically the potatoes) are tender.

The delicious finished product
The dish is warm, and filling - but light.  It's a great lunch, and an easy and healthy one at that.  I love the practicality and simple flavors of Ligurian food, and appreciate it even more when these qualities can translate to modern times, and this dish encompasses all of that.  Tian is as delicious as I'm sure it was centuries ago, served in the Cinque Terre, but takes on another appeal when it's cooked in one pot (and you don't have a dishwasher) and you can cook it in less then an hour (which is what you have for your "flood cleanup" lunch break).

And it's a great way to use those anchovies that might just show up at your doorstep in your boyfriend's father's hand.

1 comment:

  1. Christine,
    Thanks again for such a great story, I dream of anchovies like those that where everywhere in Monterosso.By the time we got to Cinque Terre I had discovered the true anchovie and not the ones from a can, which by the way I do enjoy, but nothing like fresh with good oil and lemon. Once again your one lucky woman, enjoy, I'll just drule at the pictures.
    thanks again Bob