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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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