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The Caper Caper

July 22, 1998|MARION CUNNINGHAM

The most resourceful cook I've ever known was James Beard. I assisted him at various times for 11 years, and I remember two particular occasions when his ingenuity saved the day.

Once, we arrived at a large department store in Chicago where he was to do a cooking demonstration. We had all the necessary ingredients for preparing the food, but we discovered that there was no stove or hot plate. Beard hesitated no more than a minute before he went to another department in the store and commandeered two irons. He propped them upside down, plugged them in and actually managed to cook on them.

Another time, as we were packing the food we had prepared for a large fund-raiser, we spilled a gallon of creme anglaise and had no time to make more. On the way to the event, Beard had me stop at a market and buy a gallon of vanilla ice cream. We used it melted as a sauce to finish the desserts.

My use of capers as an addition to dishes that need a good tart boost is hardly resourceful in the James Beard style, but I feel as if I've discovered a wonderful new ingredient.

I've always kept capers on hand, but I've rarely used them until now. They are often used with very rich dishes, such as veal, beef and vegetable dishes with olive oil or in cream sauces that need the balance of acid. I've added them here to a light tomato and basil mixture that I serve chilled over hot spaghetti for a very good summer supper. Capers are also good mixed with brown butter and spooned over white fish fillets.

Cunningham's latest book is "Cooking With Children" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

*

TOMATO, BASIL AND CAPERS OVER PASTA

2 large tomatoes, cored and finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped basil leaves

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

3 tablespoons finely chopped green bell pepper

3 tablespoons capers, rinsed

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup olive oil

Combine tomatoes, basil, onion, bell pepper, capers, sugar, salt and pepper. Taste and add more sugar or salt if needed. Cover and refrigerate.

Cook spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, 10 to 12 minutes or according to package directions. Drain. Toss with olive oil and season with salt if desired.

Divide spaghetti between 2 plates. Spoon chilled tomato mixture over hot spaghetti. Sauce may also be served at room temperature.

2 servings. Each serving:

405 calories; 874 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.02 grams fiber.

* Glass-covered dish and salt shaker from the thrift shop at Orthpaedic Hospital, Los Angeles.

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