The distinctive zing in rémoulade sauce, chicken piccata, and puttanesca sauce comes from capers. Capers pack big flavor in a tiny package. These little spheres are the flower buds of a prickly shrub that grows all over the Mediterranean. Some caper shrubs are cultivated, but most grow wild, and the harvesting is done by hand. Eaten raw, capers are unpalatably bitter, but once cured in a vinegar brine or in salt, they develop an intense flavor that is all at once salty, sour, herbal, and slightly medicinal. If the buds are allowed to blossom and go to seed, they become caper berries, which are also packed in brine and can be added to salads or eaten out of hand like olives.
How to buy
Capers come in a range of sizes. The smallest size (nonpareil) is said by some to be the best; others prefer larger capers for their bolder, more interesting flavor. What you choose is a matter of personal taste and what you can find at your market.
In addition to size, there’s the choice between vinegarbrined and salt-packed capers. Brined capers have the advantage of an almost indefinite shelf life, but the vinegar sharpens their flavor. Salted capers have a pure flavor, but they don’t last as long because the salt eventually pulls out all their moisture. Look for clean white salt; yellowing salt is a sign of age. All capers should be refrigerated after opening. Good mail-order sources for capers and caper berries include Kalustyan’s and Chefshop.
How to use
Rinse brined capers before using. Salt-packed capers are too salty to be eaten straight from the jar; soak them in cool water for about 15 minutes and rinse in several changes of water. If the capers are large, you can chop them roughly unless you want a big burst of caper flavor.
Capers are especially good with fish and other foods that tend to be oily or rich. In addition to the recipe for Sweet & Sour Eggplant Relish, try adding them to a vinaigrette or a butter sauce for fish or chicken, or toss a small handful into a pasta dish or potato salad. For an unusual garnish or salad addition, pat capers dry and then lightly fry them in a little olive oil. They’ll get crisp and open up like the little flowers they are.