I am always looking for ways to push the flavor button, and capers often are the answer. You may be familiar with their sharp, vinegary, salty taste when you’ve eaten them sprinkled over smoked salmon, or in chicken piccata or pasta puttanesca.
Caper bushes have grown wild throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia for centuries. In late spring or early summer, it’s not unusual to see the thorny plants poking out of rocks or even cracks in walls along the Mediterranean coastline.
Cooks love to pick these small unopened flower buds and dry them in the sun to later pickle in vinegar or pack in salt.
Before they are processed capers are sorted by size. The smallest, called nonpareil, is the size most often used in recipes because they have the most delicate taste. People often confuse caper berries with capers. Although they both come from the same plant, caper berries (about the size of a grape) are the fruit of the bush and not the flower buds. After pickling, they are eaten like olives and pickles or used as garnishes for cocktails.
Capers bridge many cuisines. You will find them as a key component in Italian salsa verde (chopped herb sauce) and caponata (eggplant dip), or in French tapenade (olive condiment) and Nicoise salad, or in Greek Mizithra sauce.
Capers add a bright acidity to a range of summer dishes like grilled fish or chicken, salads, pizza and simple vegetable sautés. I add them to all kinds of salads — tuna, chicken, egg, and potato — for extra zest. Fried capers add a crispy, nutty flavor to pasta, vegetables, and salads, and make an addictive snack on their own.
Legendary French chef Jacques Pepin drains a 3- to 4-ounce jar of large capers in a sieve; rinses them under cool tap water to remove excess salt, and dries the capers thoroughly on paper towels. He heats 1/2 to 1-inch canola or safflower oil to about 350 degrees in a skillet, then adds the capers and cooks for about 2 minutes, moving them around gently with a slotted spoon. They should be light brown and dry. Drain on paper towels and when cool enough to handle, transfer to a serving bowl. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup.
Capers will keep forever if submerged in their brine or salt. Spoon the capers out of the jar when draining, leaving the brine behind.
Greek-Style Grilled Vegetables with Caper and Myzithra Sauce
Adapted from My Greek Family Table by Maria Benardis, The Countryman Press ($29.95)
William Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux 2015 ($25.00) has a vibrant bouquet of fresh fruit, white flowers, citrus, and minerality that makes it an excellent pairing with the earthiness of grilled vegetables and salty flavors in the capers and cheese.
Benardis writes, “You can use any vegetables you like. I also like this dish cold the next day, as part of an appetizer plate. If you do plan to eat it the next day, keep the sauce in a separate bowl and spoon it over the vegetables when you’re ready to serve.” Combine the vegetables and cheese sauce with pasta to make a quick and easy main course.
2 red bell peppers
1 baby fennel bulb
1 large eggplant
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Sea salt and cracked pepper
4–5 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped basil
For the sauce
3/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons grated mizithra or feta cheese
8 large basil leaves
Wash the vegetables and pat dry. Cut each bell pepper into four pieces, and thinly slice the zucchini, fennel, and eggplant. Place all the vegetables in a bowl.
Combine the garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss through. Heat a well-oiled chargrill pan to hot, add the vegetables, and cook on both sides until they have softened and turned slightly brown.
To make the sauce, place all the ingredients in a blender and process for 1–2 minutes.
Remove the skin from the red peppers, then arrange the vegetables on a platter. Spoon the sauce over the top and garnish with chopped basil. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 Servings