If you like spaghetti alla puttanesca, tartar sauce or chicken piccata, then you must be partial to the taste of capers. Those tiny little dark green things are small in size and big in flavor. They are actually unopened flower buds of the caper plant which is a shrub-like bush that grows, primarily, on two tiny islands in the south of Italy. A few years back, Doug and I went on a trip to one of them, Pantelleria, which is a gorgeous fleck of land closer in proximity, if not culture, to Africa than to Sicily. We enjoyed the clear blue water, explored the beautiful beaches, ran into some old friends from London and learned a lot about capers. They were everywhere! Come and cook with us!
The unripened caper flower buds are too small and delicate not to be picked by hand. Which, along with transportation costs, is what makes them rather expensive. They are sorted by size, dried in the sun, brined or packed in salt, and packaged. The small (nonpareil) capers are firm. Large ones have the most intense flavor. Medium-sized ones often strike a good balance between texture and taste. When the caper buds are allowed to mature, they first turn into a delicate and beautiful flower and then grow into an olive-sized fruit called (and sold) as a caper berry. You can sometimes find them in stores and they make for a great, pungent antipasto item complementing cheeses, cured meats, olives and fresh bread.
Capers have been around for a long time. They were used in Ancient Greece, primarily to combat flatulence, but were also viewed as an aphrodisiac in Biblical times. Who knew? And while Italians often associate capers with Sicily and its arid yet gorgeous islands, capers are also grown in Asia, the Middle East, the wider Mediterranean region and even in some parts of California.
Most of the capers we see in the stores are packed in a vinegar brine. But the harder-to-find capers packed in salt have a fresher, more floral aroma. Either way, it is important to rinse both types thoroughly before use to remove the excess brine or which can easily overpower the piquant flavor of the caper itself. In some dishes, capers are featured prominently such as in a chicken piccata or salad Niçoise, but they also offer a side-kick to many Mediterranean dishes such as salads, roasted vegetables, dips, pasta sauces and, a favorite in our house, (pizzas as an intense and flavorful topping). If you try one recipe, make the chicken piccata which is simply delicious. Come and caper with us!