Try This Caper on for Sighs

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Photo by Gwen Barclay

“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.

Recipes

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.

Caponata

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.