Off the Beaten Aisle: Capers

By: J.M. Hirsch
easy puttanesca sauce

This week, it’s flower power.

Because that’s exactly what capers are and do: They are the flower buds of a wild bush that lend serious flavor power to your cooking.

Our story starts several thousand years ago, when capers moved from simple would-be blossoms to culinary colossus.

That’s when the people of the Mediterranean realized that if they picked the buds of the caper bush before they opened, they could pickle them and use them to add a deliciously pungent flavor to their cooking.

And the pickling is key -- fresh caper buds are insanely bitter.

But once those buds have been dried in the sun and packed in brine, vinegar or dry salt (brining is the most common method today), the bitterness dissipates and the tender, green, pellet-shaped buds develop a deep salty, tangy flavor.

Most capers available in the U.S. are the sort found in Italy and southern France, where they are used to flavor sauces and seafood. Capers also grow in Spain, but the variety there tends to be larger and are consumed in a fashion similar to olives.

Chances are good that you’ve had capers before. They are a standard ingredient in many Mediterranean seafood dishes (especially those involving tuna), and are a must-have for authentic puttanesca.

When shopping for capers, head to the pickle or Italian sections of the grocer, where you will find them in small jars. Most will be packed in brine, the best of which are the “nonpareils” from France.

Capers that are dry-packed in salt are prized for their intense flavor, but usually are found only in specialty shops. They also must be rinsed very well before using. Brine- or vinegar-packed capers also can be rinsed, but it isn’t essential.

If you happen to stumble upon something called caper berries, you’ve hit on a related, but not identical, ingredient. Caper berries are the fruit of the same bush. They are larger than capers, but can be pickled in the same way.

You also may sometimes find anchovies sold in tins wrapped around capers. These are especially delicious savory flavor bombs. Use them to doctor up homemade or purchased pasta sauce.

Capers generally are used as a flavor accent, a sort of finishing savory-salty bite for sauces, seafood, lamb and salads. Just remember -- they are intense, so a little goes a long way. Once opened the bottles can be refrigerated for months.

So how do you use up that bottle? Try these ideas:
  • Add them whole or gently crushed with a fork to tuna salad to give it a wonderful tangy, salty hit. And while you’re at it, add them to potato and pasta salads, too.
  • Fry capers (in a skillet) in olive oil until crisp. The flavor is insane. Sprinkle them over salads (but go easy) or over soft cheeses served with bread.
  • Sauté whole capers, garlic and pine nuts in butter for several minutes, then toss with fettuccine, grated Parmesan and chopped fresh parsley.
  • Add finely chopped capers to seafood salad (or if you’re feeling posh, add it to the lobster and mayo mélange destined for your lobster roll).
  • Create an intense vinaigrette by blending extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, capers, salt, pepper and garlic.
  • Sauté capers, mushrooms, onions and garlic, then top with shredded jack cheese and use as an omelet filling.
Ultimately Easy Puttanesca Sauce

This is my speedy version of the classic Italian pasta sauce. Serve it over any pasta you like, and be sure to top it with gobs of Parmesan cheese. Some puttanescas are spicy; this one is mild. Feel free to crank the heat with more red pepper flakes.

Start to finish: 25 minutes
Servings: 6
½ pound bacon, cut into small pieces
2 anchovy fillets
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large red bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
1 large green bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped capers
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and ground black pepper

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the bacon, anchovies, garlic, onion, both bell peppers, oregano, basil, thyme and red pepper flakes. Sauté until the bacon is cooked and the onion is tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the olives, capers and tomatoes, then bring to a simmer. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and Parmesan, then season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 320 calories; 210 calories from fat (64 percent of total calories); 24 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 35 mg cholesterol; 18 g carbohydrate; 12 g protein; 4 g fiber; 960 mg sodium.

Read more Off the Beaten articles including pancetta, mint and sesame oil.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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