The delicate buds of the caper bush are flavor enhancers that, once pickled, you won’t want to miss.
“What are these little green things?” people sometimes ask when we serve a delicate lemon sauce with fish or chicken. Those green things floating around are capers, which add a piquant flavor and garnish to a simple sauce.
Capers are small, pale green, unopened flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa). The buds are pickled in a solution of vinegar and salt that acts both to preserve them and instigate a chemical reaction that makes them more palatable. This is much like the curing process of olives. The slightly bitter flavor of pickled capers is often described as similar to the taste of goat’s-milk cheese.
Where do those little buds come from?
Capers are harvested from the caper bush that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean area in the south of France, Spain, and in Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, and Asia Minor. Capers are also cultivated in U.S. Zones 8 and above. Waverly Root, in his treatise Food (Simon and Schuster, 1980), suggests that capers were not originally prevalent in any of these regions, but were more likely native to the Sahara Desert.
The caper bush seems designed for desert existence and is known in North Africa as the Sahara caper tree. The plant remains green with juicy leaves and stems even when the soil is very dry. It is believed that the leaves absorb moisture from the humidity of the night air.
There are several grades of capers. Provence, in the south of France, leads the list in producing the highest-quality small buds, known as nonpareils. They are about 1/8 inch in size. The caper buds must be picked by hand each day because the buds develop weekly, which is what makes them so expensive. The size of the unopened bud determines its price. The smallest qualify as nonpareils and are sold at top price. Surfines, capucines, fines, and capotes follow in increasing order of size and diminishing value.
More than just a condiment
Capers are considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are most often used as a condiment, but are also found in some cosmetics and have been used medicinally in some areas of the world.
The beautiful white, four-petaled, crepe-like flowers with light purple stamens last only a few hours. Within a day or so, the fruit begins to develop on a very long stem from the center of each spent flower. Growing rapidly, the berry is harvested while green and pickled in the same manner as caper buds. When pickled, the berry is sometimes called taperon and resembles a coarse, slightly oval green grape. They are always pickled with the stem (which is about 2 inches long—about the length of a cherry stem) still attached and are usually served that way, too. The pickled taperon berries are too large and pungent to eat in one bite, so they are held by the stem and nibbled. With their seedy, slightly starchy texture, similar to okra, taperon berries are eaten as a condiment, like olives.
An adaptable plant
In Italy, south of Florence, capers grow profusely on ancient stone walls, with roots beginning 10 to 12 feet above the ground. The only soil available to them has to have been placed there by the wind. The plants are a spectacular sight with their green leaves, buds, gorgeous flowers, and beautiful berries hanging on long stems.
We tried through the years to germinate caper seed, and were unsuccessful until about ten years ago. We soaked the hard seeds in a hot-water solution overnight, then sowed them in a soilless mix. When the seedlings came up, we felt as if we’d won the lottery. We shared the seedlings with arboretum friends and planted the rest in large containers. The next year, a few went into the garden, in a well-drained spot in full sun. The plants have thrived, blooming and setting buds for capers and berries. In addition, our container-grown plants continued to prosper in 24-inch containers for three more years before they, too, were planted in raised garden beds.
Catalogs often mention that caper seed germination is erratic. In gathering our own seed it became clear why this is the case. Each plump berry yields several hundred seeds, some deep brown and about the size of a chive seed, but most much smaller in size and a lighter brown, indicating immaturity. When seeds are packaged at random, there are both mature and immature seeds in the packet, resulting in erratic germination. We sorted out the mature seeds before planting to ensure greater success. We also propagate capers by taking 5-inch cuttings in late fall when night temperatures fall below 65°F. Cuttings usually root in two to three weeks.
Wintering the caper bush
The plants freeze each winter and the foliage is cut back in February. The emerging growth in the spring is a deep burgundy for several weeks. As our night temperatures moderate, the leaves gradually become green and can be eaten as a vegetable. In Greece, the leaves are pickled in the same manner with salt and vinegar, as are capers and caper berries. They are very bitter, like the caper before brining. The brined caper leaves are used similarly to other wild greens foraged throughout Greece in salads or on their own as an appetizer.
The caper bush is hardy to about Zone 8. Where we live in Texas (Zone 8B), we have mild winters with low temperatures in the high twenties, occasionally lower. The deep-rooted plants survive well in drought conditions.
Capers grow as a lax shrub with branches often reaching 5 feet. Blossoming begins in early spring and continues until a killing frost takes them down, usually in early December. We do not trim frost-damaged foliage hard until early February, other than to tidy up.
Capers are small, pale green, unopened flower buds of the caper bush that are pickled.
A tasty addition to the table
In the kitchen, capers are often added to fish dishes, particularly those recipes of Northern and Eastern European origin. Capers are a necessary ingredient in classic sauces such as ravigote, vinaigrette, and tapenade. They are also used with boiled mutton and beef tartare. Capers are used to enhance flavor in fresh tomato sauce and in the classic Italian vitello tonnato (braised veal with tuna sauce) and eggplant caponato. Also, a fresh lemon caper sauce will make a fish fillet zing with flavor. Capers can be added to hors d’oeuvres, salads, and antipasti and used as toppings on pizza. And combined with caraway seed, they are a must in Austria’s famous Liptauer cheese.
Gwen Barclay and Madalene Hill live, cook, and garden in the central Texas town of Round Top. Gwen is the director of food service at the International Festival Institute, and Madalene is the curator of the public herb gardens.
Creamy Tapenade Provençal
Makes about 2 cups
Traditional tapenade recipes vary widely, often containing only olives, oil, anchovies, and capers, ground to a thick paste. This creamy variation is versatile and easy to prepare. Use it to top grilled or sautéed fish or chicken, drizzle it over sliced tomatoes, or spread it on turkey or tuna sandwiches.
1 cup pitted kalamata olives (or other flavorful olives)
6 anchovy fillets, minced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 tablespoons capers
3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped basil
3/4 cup mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
Chopped fresh parsley (preferably flat-leaf Italian) for garnish
Chop the pitted olives, anchovies, garlic, and capers in a food processor. Add the lemon juice and olive oil, then process until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and, using a rubber spatula, fold in the mayonnaise and basil; season with pepper, salt, and additional lemon juice as needed (go easy on the salt, as the anchovy fillets are salty). Serve at room temperature topped with chopped parsley. Refrigerate leftover sauce for up to one week.
Capers are most often used as a condiment, but they are also found in cosmetics and are used medicinally in some areas of the world.
Mediterranean Verte Sauce
Makes 11/2 to 2 cups
Similar caper sauces are served throughout Europe. This is an excellent condiment for meats, poultry, or fish. Stir the sauce into sour cream to create a rich topping for meats, or thin it with additional oil and vinegar for dressing salad greens or vegetable combinations.
Note: All herbs should be measured firmly packed.
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup parsley (preferably flat-leaf Italian)
1 cup spearmint
1/2 cup mint marigold or tarragon
3/4 cup basil leaves
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
4 tablespoons capers
11/2 tablespoons ground mustard seed
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) ground cayenne pepper
1/2 to 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 to 2/3 cup white wine vinegar
Combine the ingredients in a food processor, pulsing until evenly chopped; add enough oil and vinegar to create a smooth mixture. Avoid chopping too finely. Sauce is best prepared at least 24 hours in advance and stored in the refrigerator.
Serves 4 to 6
The classic Sicilian antipasto or appetizer depends on capers for its distinctive flavor. Serve hot as a topping for crusty bread or chilled with salad greens.
2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut in 1/2- to 1-inch cubes (small
Italian or Oriental varieties do not require peeling)
1/4 to 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
2 large cloves garlic, mashed
1 medium yellow or red onion, peeled, halved, and sliced
2 cups sliced celery
2 cups diced Roma tomatoes (or substitute canned diced tomatoes, well drained)
2 bay leaves, broken into pieces (if using fresh bay, remove the center stem and finely chop)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 to 3 tablespoons capers, preferably small variety (chop if large capers are used)
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives (or other good olives), coarsely chopped or sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced in thin pieces (do not cut until the last minute)
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts or toasted chopped walnuts
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle it generously with salt. Let stand for at least 30 minutes; rinse well under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Small types of eggplant do not need to be salted.
Over medium-high heat, pour the smaller amount of olive oil into a large, heavy skillet, just covering the bottom. Gradually add the eggplant, stirring constantly. Add more oil if necessary. As soon as all of the eggplant is in the pan, gradually add the garlic, onion, and celery, adding more olive oil as needed. Cook until heated through, but not browned. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, all of the herbs except basil, vinegar, capers, and olives. Mix well and lower heat to simmer. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the eggplant is tender. Add a little water if the mixture becomes too thick.
Season the caponata with salt, pepper, and additional vinegar as needed to balance the flavor. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature; add sliced basil leaves, nuts, and parsley for garnish just before serving. Caponata may be served at room temperature, chilled, or warmed carefully and served hot.
In Italy, south of Florence, capers grow profusely on ancient stone walls, with roots beginning 10 to 12 feet above the ground.
Lemon Caper Sauce
Makes about 2 cups, enough for 6 to 8 servings
Delicate yet assertive, this quickly prepared sauce is delicious with sautéed or grilled chicken, turkey, or fish fillets and as a dressing for pasta or steamed vegetables.
2 tablespoons butter or extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, mashed
1 cup fruity white wine such as sauvigon blanc or chenin blanc
2 cups rich chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary or sage
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons nonpareil capers (small type)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
Melt the butter in a medium skillet; add the garlic and cook quickly until fragrant, but do not allow it to brown. Add the wine and bring to a boil, then stir in the chicken stock, lemon juice, and rosemary or sage. Reduce heat and simmer until the mixture is slightly reduced and fragrant. Stir in the dissolved cornstarch and season with the salt and pepper; return to a boil and cook for 1 minute, until thickened. Stir in the capers and serve immediately, topped with chopped parsley.
Note: If you’re sautéing poultry or fish, do that first and set it aside, then use the same skillet to prepare the sauce.
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