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January 31, 2008

Capers (Recipe: confetti spaghetti) {vegetarian, gluten-free}

Capers1

Was it Peter Piper who first pickled a peck of prickly perennial pods?

Inquiring minds want to know.

I want to know.

Who first thought that pickling the unripened flower buds of Capparis spinosa, a bushy Mediterranean plant, would be a good idea? An adventurous cook who lived before 3,000 BC, because history records capers used as a food at least that long ago.

And it was a good idea, for without capers, there would be no remoulade or tapenade, piccata or caponata. And no scallopini

Tart, lemon-flavored capers balance out both the sweetness of dried fruit, in one of my all-time favorite Silver Palate dishes -- chicken marbella -- and the oiliness of salmon. Capers pair well with tomatoes and potatoes, eggplant, eggs and tofu, too. (Hint: if you are out of capers, substitute some preserved lemon rind.)

You can make your own Poor Man's Capers at home from nasturtium seeds. If, that is, your nasturtiums grow more robustly than mine do.

Capers are graded into four sizes before soaking in vinegar, salt, brine or oil. The smallest size, called nonpareil, is the most prized, and most pricey. Larger capers are a bit less aromatic.

If packed in brine or vinegar, they should be stored in the refrigerator; salt-cured capers may be stored at room temperature for up to six months. Be sure to rinse all capers before you cook with them.

Confetti spaghetti

Adapted from Kitchen Playdates by Lauren Bank Deen (a wonderful gift from my friend Laura). Yes, it's a kids' cookbook, with recipes that include very grown-up ingredients. Make this with spaghetti squash, or substitute any pasta of your choice. Serves 4; can be doubled.

Ingredients

1 large spaghetti squash (or 1-1/2 lb pasta)
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp capers, drained
1 zucchini, seeded and diced
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 orange or yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, asiago or ricotta salata cheese, 1/4 cup or more, to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Rub the squash inside and out with the oil, and place cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 45 minutes or until the rind is slightly soft and yields to the touch. With a fork, scrape out the flesh into an ovenproof bowl. It will look like spaghetti. (Can be done ahead and reheated in a microwave.)

If you are making this dish with pasta, prepare the pasta according to package directions. Drain, and set aside.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, and melt the butter. Brown the butter carefully until it turns dark brown in color, but is not burned. Add the capers, zucchini, and bell peppers, and stir quickly to stop the butter from cooking any further. Remove from the heat when warmed through. Add lemon juice, parsley , and coarse salt and pepper to taste.

In a large serving bowl or platter, combine the squash or pasta, butter sauce, and diced tomato. Sprinkle with cheese and serve hot.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Pasta puttanesca
Caponata
Tapenade

Comments

I like capers, only use tiny bits though, about 1 tsp, as the taste is rather pugent. Maybe mine are most-prized smallest capers *lol*

I was first introduced to capparis spinosa during my first botany class in college and was enthralled to find out that the buds were edible. I went to my local market and found a jar of capers and was hooked ever since!

I used to like capers just fine. But then I read "Heartburn", and now I can´t help thinking of the quote "is something tastes good with capers in it, it will taste better with them without."

I can just picture that colorful confetti spaghetti! And I feel so rich...I have the pricey nonpareil capers in my fridge :D
Love the names of all those classic dishes you have listed there!

Lydia, I think the best thing about the Perfect Pantry, is that you are constantly teaching us never to take a single ingredient for granted. I must admit I had no idea what capers really were, but I seem to always have to buy a fresh bottle, because I can't remember how long I've had the one in the fridge! I love the information you dig up!

I can remember the first time I tasted capers, and I loved them immediately. Great post!

capers RULE!!!! as tasty as a girl's kiss...

(a close second is seeing the venerable Boston Red Sox win the world series...)

Capers are wonderful and your post really caught the essence of them. And a tasty sounding recipe for spaghetti squash - I'm so happy I found your site. (I've now subscribed, thanks!) When I recently researched my Caper Tart post, I found a research article which cited evidence that capers have been used by humans for at least 18,000 years. Your question about who first pickled them is a good one especially since they are so bitter when raw. Maybe the sun-dried ones came first? Who knows, but I like your post pondering the issue. By the way, pickled caper leaves are also quite tasty.

Lydia, I love capers, too. When my husband makes pasta he always adds them! We always debate what a caper actually is. So, it is an unripened flower bud. Hmmm ... does that make it a vegetable? My sister and I are thinking hard on this.

Hi Lydia,
I never knew that capers go waaaay back. Thanks for the tip about smaller capers being more aromatic. I was wondering about why there was a price difference with the sizes.

This pasta recipe sounds delicious and colourful.

Nora

OMG, I have never heard of this dish before but now think I have experienced love at first sight! As soon as I get back from NYC I am trying this--I am a fool for capers!

There were always, always capers in my fridge growing up. Plenty went into butter sauces, lots went with fish, but to this day, if I make tuna salad, there'd better be capers adding their little *pop* to the mix. :D

I'm curious where the larger capers go to die - I've only seen the larger graded capers in one gourmet grocer in town, and I love the idea of serving these larger ones as part of an olive platter for contrast (an idea which actually came from a utensil-less party manifesto). An unsuspecting diner would wonder why that olive is a bit different, and be treated instead to a mouthfull of caper!

.....'scuse me, I'm drooling and need to run to that gourmet store *right now*. Bye!

My mother used capers for fish and I used to mistake them for fish eyes! I'm happily past that now.

I like the name Confetti Spaghetti. It sounds so colorful. There are many ingredients I have not mingled with, and capers is one of them.

I love capers and I like how you described them, because like olives, its one of those ingredients that I love and can always pick out, but have never really been able to properly describe. What do capers taste like? Why, capers, of course! Needless to say, not the most helpful answer when trying to explain to somebody. I like to use them in creamy sauces--the acidity just cuts right throw and gives a great contrast. Also, good to know about the preserved lemons (still playing the waiting game)!

And the dish sounds great--lots of tasty, strong Mediterranean flavors there!

Gattina, same here, a little goes a long way for me -- but so many dishes are just dull without capers.

White on Rice Couple, science class is a fun way to be introduced to food! I wonder when we -- as a culture -- became afraid of eating food from the wild? I think it must have had something to do with the widespread use of pesticides.

Lobstersquad, I'm giggling!

Nupur, isn't it funny how many of the classic dishes have capers? I'd never realized it until I sat down to write this post.

TW, thank you so much. And I'm ashamed to admit that I've found as many as four half-used jars of capers in my fridge at one time. The capers that are submerged in brine, though, are still good, even if they've been around for ages. I just scoop off the dried ones on the top, and combine the rest into one brine-filled jar.

Kalyn, it definitely was not love at first taste for me, but I love them now!

Jeff, don't know about the Sox, but how about the Pats winning the Super Bowl???

Laurie, thanks for adding this historical information. I've never tasted caper leaves, so that will be something for me to try! I'm sharing the link to your post, for Pantry readers who'd like to try your caper tart:
http://medcookingalaska.blogspot.com/2007/12/recipes-caper-tart-capers-and-eggs.html

Meg, good question! But I think it just makes it a berry. A really delicious berry!

Nora, the smaller capers are harder to harvest, which accounts for the price, too. I like them because I like the flavor of caper in a dish, but I don't always want to have a mouth full of caper berries. Like garlic -- sometimes I want the flavor, without chewing on a piece of garlic.

Cakespy, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I love that this recipe came from a book about cooking for and with kids -- I think of capers as such an "adult" taste, but how great to get kids to love them.

Keewi, welcome! Our local gourmet store has the large, olive-size capers that come with the beautiful stems attached. They are perfect on an antipasto platter. But for cooking, I love the tiny ones. And yes, to capers in tuna salad!

Catherine, the little girl in me wants to say eeewwwwww, fish eyes!

Tigerfish, I love the name, too. And what kid wouldn't want to try Confetti Spaghetti, even made with squash instead of pasta? Do try capers if you find them in your local market.

Mike, when your preserved lemons are ready (it's hard to wait, isn't it?), you'll see that the taste of the lemons and capers is remarkably similar -- which means that capers have a bit of a lemon pickle flavor. Yes, hard to describe.

I thought you might like to see a picture of what capers look like "in the wild."
http://tinyurl.com/377k8u
We saw these everywhere all over Croatia and I finally figured out how to ask someone what they were, when they said capers, I couldn't believe it, but if you look closely at the buds, you can totally see it. Pretty aren't they?

Wow, they look JUST like capers ... don't know what I expected. Thanks (and thanks for the answer ... a berry).

yes, Pats all the way...

Thank you My dear Lydia! I love that you added the ingredients that go well with capers. And I do love them with salmon a lot! Do you think capers in vinegar are better than the one in salt, or tehre is no difference?

haha, i know so clever pickling a pod! where did they ever come up w/ that one? so glad they did tho i love capers, especcially in spagetti, yum!

Ann, thank you so much! The photo is great -- did you taste the Croatian capers? I'd love to know more.

Warda, I think capers and salmon are so good together -- because anything that has a bit of lemon flavor is such a good pairing with salmon. Even when I rinse the capers that have been pickled in brine, I can still taste the vinegar. Sometimes you don't want that residual taste in your recipe, so the salt ones are better. But the salt-cured ones are much more expensive, at least in my markets, so I always buy the ones in vinegar.

Aria, I often wonder who first thought up some of the foods we eat -- like fish sauce!

Capers are one of my absolute favorite ingredients- I am a girl obcessed! I learned something new today- I did not know that the smaller they are the more prized they are. My favorites are the ones preserved in salt- I could eat them straight out of the jar! :)


Katia, I like to fry them until they are crunchy and use them as a garnish -- and the salt-cured capers do work best for that.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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