Pappardelle with minimalist dressing: toasted breadcrumbs, crispy capers and bacon lardons. And it tastes divine.
How I discovered crispy capers
Being lazy pays off, I’ve found it to be true time and time again. I was baking some fish and I was going to dress it with lemon caper butter but couldn’t be bothered to cook it on the hob in a small skillet, as it should be.
I bunged the tray for the fish into the oven to preheat and I scattered the capers on it – to be stirred into butter on a hot tray after the fish is done. I opened the oven some ten minutes later and whoosh! fumes billowed out (rapidly evaporating salt, I later realised) and beautiful, crisp caper blossoms appeared on the tray.
Pure serendipity: lemon butter was forgotten, and we couldn’t get enough of the crunchy salty wonders. Immediately I started thinking how those beauties could be utilised as they are a little too salty and pricey for a snack.
You can obviously scatter them over salads. In fact, jars of crispy capers with that purpose are available to buy but those are even more expensive than capers in brine.
And another obvious application of those capers is in pasta. Everything goes with pasta; I recently added cooked chestnuts to my fusilli with great success. And the salty, crispy bits are perfect against the bland pasta canvas.
More sophisticated varieties of fried bread, the greatest comfort food, are croutons and toasted breadcrumbs. The former have their place in salads and soups, the latter are brilliant to dress plain boiled or sauteed vegetables – or pasta.
Breadcrumbs are actually an age-old pasta dressing and sometimes called poor man’s Parmesan in this context. Italian name for pasta with breadcrumbs is con pangrattato.
They need to be fried in olive oil or butter, tossed and stirred all the time until crisp and golden, and seasoned as you wish, with herbs, spices, garlic or Parmesan. I’d strongly advise to make a big batch of them – they have a habit of disappearing from the tub.
Bacon or pancetta?
My third element to this dish is another crispy-crunchy-salty ingredient: bacon. You can skip it in a vegetarian version or replace it with tofu diced small and cooked just like the bacon in the recipe.
Pancetta, the Italian streaky bacon, is significantly less salty than English bacon so it might be prudent to use that. But I’m a sucker for salty so I perversely use smoked streaky bacon lardons from my butcher’s.
The capers and bacon are cooked in the oven, and it relieves the traffic on the hob, just keep an eye on the oven.
And then, when everything is ready (though mind, the breadcrumbs can be a pantry staple if you make a big batch and can resist sneaking a tablespoon at a time), you can either just toss it all together, adding a drizzle of very good olive oil to the pasta, or stir only the breadcrumbs in and use bacon and capers as garnish, so their part is more pronounced and everyone gets a fair share.
Parmesan is optional, after all the crumbs ARE the Parmesan in this instance.
This dish is all about textures: everything is crispy and crunchy. This is truly gorgeous simplicity, up there with the most beautifully minimalist pasta dishes like cacio e pepe or aglio e olio.
Too much salt?
Delightful as it is, it is also seriously salty – so those with hypertension, be warned.
If you want to limit the salt intake somewhat or if you’re not obsessed with uber-salty bites like I am, rinse and drain, and rinse and drain, or even soak and rinse and drain the capers before roasting.
More recipes with capers
Capers and fish are like avocado and toast. Here’s mackerel with capers and olives, stuffed and baked.
They are so good as garnish on a fish dish. I can’t have Dover sole without them, and skate fillets are great with caper butter.
Not just fish: if you’re a fan of steak tartare, try it some time with capers. It’s a game changer!
More simple pasta recipes
In season, there is nothing better than pasta with fresh tomatoes.
Creamy Alfredo sauce with a hint of spinach and a few peas, perfectly dresses bucatini or spaghetti.
A seasonal variant again, pasta with asparagus and lemon, served with lots of Parmesan.