I had beets. I had currants, left over from (not) making fruitcake during the holidays.
And I had capers, plenty of capers. I love capers. It’s a long time since I bought them in those dinky, overpriced supermarket jars. These days I go to a restaurant supply place, or a market that caters to restaurateurs, such as a Smart & Final, and buy my capers by the quart.
Yeah, by the quart. Do not judge me.
Anyway: Beets. Currants. Capers. Have they ever gone together, I wondered?
Food history is vast. This is one of those questions like, “Is there a plot device ‘The Simpsons’ hasn’t used yet?”
In fact, this exact combination was employed by a man named Robert May, chef to various Royalist families during that awkward period when the English executed one Stuart king and then reconsidered about 20 years later and brought the Stuarts back (until they got sick of them again). He was the leading exemplar of aristocratic Franco-English cuisine in the late 17thcentury.
It’s a style that doesn’t have quite so much appeal today. Who can get all the tortoises, porpoises, ptarmigans and obscure freshwater fish the recipes call for? It’s often stuffy and overloaded with garnishes, sort of like men’s fashions at the time (which tended to stick plumes, ribbons and bits of lace on your clothes anywhere there was room). Cooks could rarely leave well enough alone without throwing in oysters, meatballs, chicken livers, sweetbreads and/or sausages to top up the protein quotient of a dish.
But among the 1,300 recipes in May’s magnum opus “The Accomplisht Cook,” or “The Art and Mystery of Cookery,” there’s one he called “a grand Sallet of pickled Capers,” which has our combination of beets, currants and capers. What made this a “grand sallet” might have been the high cost of currants and capers, which were expensive imports (still are, for that matter). At any rate, it does show the grandeur of the Baroque, and in, for once, a simple, elegant fashion.
It combines the earthy sweetness of beets and the austere, dried-fruit sweetness of currants with the brusque, outdoorsy tang of capers. Add the sharpness of vinegar and the unctuousness of oil, and you have a silky side dish it’s hard to stop eating. To us, it’s not so much a salad as a noble condiment to accompany any straightforward meat dish, from saltimbocca up to a roast.
May’s way of serving it was to set the capers and currants in the middle of a plate and surround them with the beets in a vinaigrette dressing. Apart from grandeur of presentation, though, I see no reason to keep everything separate — the components are going to mingle anyway. And if you mix everything together and leave the sallet overnight to mellow, the beets dye everything a deep, somber, majestic red, and you do have something grand to behold; positively regal, in fact.
A Grand Sallet of Pickled Capers
Serves 6-8 as a condiment or side dish
- Drain the capers.
- Cut the stems off the beets near the roots but leave the roots and about half an inch of stem. Bring water to the boil and boil or steam the beets until softened, about ½ hour.
- When they are cool, slip off the skins and rub off the stem stumps and roots. Cut the beets into rough dice.
- Put the currants in a small saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the currants are plump, about 5 minutes. Drain. Mix the currants with the beets, capers, oil and vinegar.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.
Photo: A grand sallet of pickled capers.