People seldom think that anchovies are just OK. They either love them or they hate them. Period. Those that love them believe that those who hate them just haven't experienced the proper application of anchovies, blaming pizza, bad Caesar salad and other forms of anchovy misuse. Those that hate them tend to disagree, and steer clear as much as possible.
Anchovies are also slipped into recipes by cooks who promise that they will disappear ("melt") into the dish and that "you won't taste them." They do this is because anchovies are loaded with glutamates (also known as umami) which are widely believed to make food taste delicious or savory. The theory is that the anchovy flavor works in the background, adding depth of flavor and enhancing savoriness. This trick is often used in strong, tomato based sauces and is why fish sauce (often made with anchovies) is an elusive, but essential, ingredient in many Asian dishes. But again, anchovy haters can sniff out this deception at twenty paces.
In a much more forthright manner, old canapé recipes are draped high with anchovies whose saltiness is reported to encourage drinking and some people even tuck them into olives before plunking them into their martinis. The presence of anchovies is required in many classic dishes in order for them to be deemed authentic. Tapenade, pissaladiere, and puttanesca sauce all call for anchovies but don't put them in your Caesar salad (it's the Worcestershire sauce that adds the anchovy flavor).
So for those that love them, there are many reasons to keep a tin or two of anchovies in the house. And those that hate them, well, they just simply hate them. Anchovies are strong, pungent little fish (at least the tinned ones are) and for some people, that's not an appetizing flavor.
What's your take on this well-loved, well-hated ingredient. Essential? Horrid? Go ahead and use them but just don't tell me? What's your favorite use for a tin of anchovies?
(Image: Kerry Saretsky at Serious Eats)