Capers (KAY-pers) come from a perennial shrub that can burst with showy flowers of pinkish white. But flowers aren’t the point—the small grey delicacies we know as capers are actually the flower buds, assiduously plucked before the flower can even form.
Capers have long been a feature of Mediterranean cuisine. Bushes bud rapidly and require daily attention in season, accounting for the caper’s relatively high cost. The buds are green when picked but are seldom eaten raw. Their pungent taste comes from capric acid, developed by pickling. They range in size from the petite nonpareils of southern France (widely considered the world’s finest) to Italian varieties as large as a fingertip. They’re usually bottled in brine but are occasionally dry-packed in salt. Either way, a gentle washing will remove any excess salt.
When the buds are left to flower, the bush forms an olive-sized fruit known as the caper berry. Caper berries are particularly popular in Spain, where they sit alongside olives as pre-meal restaurant nibbles.
Capers marry well with fish and lamb and are the predominant flavor in chicken picatta. They figure into sauces like remoulade and tartar and are a delicious addition to lemon and mustard sauces for chicken, veal and shrimp. They’re a great addition to chicken salad and cold pasta salads.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.