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Things That Have Interested Me

Kitchen Capers

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
25 November 2006

I met a man who had grown up in France, where he had learned to cook soufflés as a child. As a young man he casually cooked them for friends. Gradually, however, this perfectionist had found that his soufflés had got worse and worse. He was, he said, going to have to go back and relearn the procedures.

We all get stuck in our ways, or need some new impulse in cooking. I make no claim to originality in what follows, which is an account of recent researches in my autumn kitchen. Indeed, as you will see, the dishes in question appear to be related to classics of their kind. I cooked them first, then I researched them - hardly a defensible procedure. But they were all new to me.

What set the ball rolling was a half-kilo bag of Carluccio's quick polenta, bought in Bicester Village (our local destination designer outlet) and prepared according to the instructions on the bag, with butter and some Parmesan worked in, and turned out into a great rectangular dish, in anticipation of visitors. The slices cut off this slab for lunch made little impact on the volume of the whole, and I realised afterwards that I was going to face a few polenta-filled days, and I might as well make them interesting.

The reason why I do not normally cook polenta is that the correct procedure seems a drag, while the instant version is generally described by the experts as an inferior product. But polenta - or maize meal, "corn-meal" in the American kitchen - is a delicious autumnal product, redolent of the New World and of Mexico in particular. And this variety seemed fine enough to me.

An article by Charles Elliott in the autumn issue of Hortus, the thinker's garden quarterly, tells us that there is no wild ancestor of maize extant. The plant, which is found exclusively in cultivation, fails to drop its seeds, and, for this reason and others, human beings are needed to plant it and to select better strains as they occur. Throughout the 20th century there has been an acrimonious scientific debate about the origins of maize, which appears to be still unsolved. The article also informs us that the soft, primitive covering on a maize kernel, the bit that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat corn on the cob, is correctly called the glume.

On the first evening, I cut a slice for myself (happening to be alone), laid it in an ovenproof dish, covered it with slices of Roquefort and placed it in the oven for 10 minutes. The result was a surprise: the white part of the Roquefort melted as anticipated, leaving the blue veins with their powdery mould stranded on top, perfectly keeping their form.

This is a Milanese or north Italian dish, and the next night I improved on it, using a more idiomatic cheese, Gorgonzola, and heating the polenta slice first, before applying the cheese covering. If I had taken another cheese, Fontina, and cut it and the polenta into small slices, and stacked them in the manner of a row of toppled dominoes, and put them under the grill, I would have had (according to sources later consulted) a dish called Concia, beloved in the Val d'Aosta.

Concia is an interesting word, to do with the tanning industry, that seems in this context to mean a mess or an arrangement. An "acconciatura" is a hair-do. But "Come sei conciato male!" means "Don't you look a mess!" I suppose what one is constructing here is a messy arrangement.

There was still more polenta to go. On the third night I took a piece of fish, oiled it and placed it beside a slice of polenta, and once again put the dish into a hot oven. Then I washed a dessertspoonful of capers under the tap (they were a mixture of salted and pickled capers) and chopped them roughly on a board. These I heated in butter, quite a lot of butter, whereupon they immediately began to make an interesting sauce, which was finished with a capful of a good vinegar.

This sauce has nothing originally to do with polenta, but it is sharp and salty and everything to do with mutton or fish. It is an old English sauce, and this is how Eliza Acton describes it in Modern Cookery (1858 edition): "Stir into a third of a pint of good melted butter from three to four dessertspoonsful of capers; add a little of the vinegar [she means the vinegar they came in], and dish the sauce as soon as it boils. Keep it stirred after the berries are added: part of them may be minced and a little chilli vinegar substituted for their own." The quantities here are enough for a small joint of mutton. The mincing or chopping of the capers is well worth the trivial effort involved.

This kind of caper sauce is indeed quick to make, but while looking through my books I saw a reference to a "creamy caper sauce" which set my thoughts in a different direction. The next night, I repeated the recipe with a different fish (it had been cod before, now it was salmon), this time using only salted capers which I washed and stewed in butter. Then, instead of vinegar, I added a generous dollop of crème fraîche, allowing it to bubble just a little.

No doubt this too is a famous sauce. It's not in any of my books. Nor is it the "creamy caper sauce" of tradition, which is made with flour. At all events, I was glad to add two quick caper sauces to my repertoire. The second one turns out rather like a hot sauce tartare. Evidently I like capers. Not everybody does. Those who do, however, are well advised to add a few roughly chopped capers to scrambled eggs, before cooking. The affinity between capers and eggs helps fool the palate into thinking that the eggs in question are of extraordinarily high quality.

By now my polenta was exhausted. It could, of course, have been cut into pieces and arranged in a dish in a thick cheese sauce, to feed a large group. Or it could have partnered a mushroom dish or a hare ragout. So much else could have happened. But what I have described is what actually did happen.

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