Capers start out as unripe buds of the low-growing prickly caper bush. For general use, they end up pickled in vinegar.
If you fancy yourself a creative cook, you probably have a jar of them lurking somewhere within your edible arsenal. When you need their dusky piquant flavor, it cannot be matched by any other ingredient.
Unfortunately, my husband hates capers. Not only does he find their flavor objectionable, he has a problem with their appearance. He says they look like spider bodies.
Even if I didn’t feel compelled to experiment with them from a professional standpoint, I’d use capers because I enjoy their flavor. But whenever I do, I have to endure a barrage of spider jokes. I’ve tried not mentioning the fact that the meal we’re about to eat contains spi- (er!) capers, but he always ferrets them out, and on come the laughs.
Actually capers aren’t the only food I’ve tried to sneak past my family. Ever since he was a tiny tot, my youngest son has had a picky palate. Things have improved now that he’s a young adult, but as a child, the only two foods I was able to serve him with total confidence were raw carrots and ground beef.
Well, if a person is pretty much sticking to orange and brown food, it’s a little tricky trying to sneak other foods into his diet.
I tried once after he developed a liking for California onion soup dip. I innocently assumed that if this child liked onion soup mix in sour cream (something that he’s only marginally fond of), then he was bound to like it in hamburger (something he really loves).
You can see what’s coming, right? He spent the dinner hour, fork in hand, strip-mining itsy bitsy flecks of onion from the meatloaf and depositing them into a goopy pile on his plate.
Our oldest son was a much easier victim because he basically liked everything, as long as he didn’t know what it was. I got him to sample shark by saying, “It’s fish, and it’s grilled. Try it.”
Both boys developed an appreciation for herb-flavored fettuccini. So I didn’t think it would be too big a step for them to move on to a beet-flavored variety. But when they asked me what kind of pasta was in the salad they were about to eat I wimped out and said “pink.”
Well, the younger one announced he wasn’t ready for pink food. But his older brother ate it and even graduated to spinach and chile flavors before heading off to college.
Which is exactly my point. This compulsion to sneak unusual or unliked foods into my loved-ones’ meals did not have a sinister basis. I was simply trying to expand their culinary horizons in a gentle, unremarkable way.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing gentle or unremarkable about a caper. Capers are added for contrast, as a counterpoint. So sneaking them into a recipe is practically impossible.
At least I thought so until the week before Christmas several years ago. I was developing a vegetable and scallop recipe for a series of simple sautes. Midway through the process, I decided that a bit of anise flavoring would be just the right touch – scallop and anise flavors compliment each other beautifully. So I splashed in a bit of anisette from my liquor cabinet.
To counter the slightly sweet flavor from the liqueur, capers came to mind as the perfect accent.
Well, for a first-run, I thought the dish was superb.
Even my husband, who isn’t what you’d call a scallop fan, openly raved about the meal. Not a word about spider ranching. Hadn’t he noticed? No railing about spider legs being a wasted resource. Had he seen the light? When it was over, the two of us lingered at the table.
“Here Comes Santa Clause” was plinking merrily away on the stereo. He sat there and told me that this recipe was a winner.
“You really think so?” I asked.
“You bet. I’d have it again anytime,” he said, cupping my face lovingly between his hands and pulling me close. “We’ll call it Housefly’s Revenge Saute.”
Scallops and mushroom saute
3cups sliced mushrooms (about 1/4 pound)
2cups sliced celery
1 1/2cups chopped onion
1/4teaspoon white pepper
2tablespoons anisette (licorice-flavored liqueur)
2tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
3/4pound bay scallops, rinsed and drained (this removes any “fishiness” from frozen scallops)
12/3cup light cream
1pound of fettuccini pasta (preferably spinach or herb-flavored)
Melt the butter in large skillet and saute mushrooms, celery, and onion until onions are soft and mushrooms have released their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add dill, salt, pepper, anisette and capers and continue cooking until liquid is almost evaporated. Add scallops and continue cooking until scallops become opaque, about 3 minutes. Add cream and cook until cream reduces by about 1/2 and mixture thickens, about 5 minutes; adjust flavoring.
Meanwhile, cook fettuccini in large pot of boiling water until tender (according to package directions). Drain, then toss with butter to coat. On each of four dinner plates, place a serving of pasta, then top with a portion of the scallop mixture. Serve immediately.
Yields 4 servings.
Note: Anisette is an essential ingredient in this recipe. The faint licorice flavor is a delicious compliment to scallops. However, if you happen to have Pernod in your liquor cabinet, this could also be used (begin with 3 tablespoons, adding more to taste). Fresh fennel leaves, finely chopped, may also work, but the flavor would be slightly different, of course.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at email@example.com.