Size Matters

At least when it comes to capers. The smallest ones, cultivated largely in Southern France, are the most prized. They have a subtler flavor and are more aromatic than their bouffant brethren.

capersBut to each their own. My stores have them all, from the teeny non-pareils to the corn kernel-sized grusas. Whatever the millimeter, I am positively passionate about these dark olive-green gems, and always, always have a jar in the fridge, hardly ever in the cabinet, mind you, because that would connote storage, and who can sleep when there are untouched capers around? They’re meant to be used, these briny little balls, again and again, in all manner of foods, mostly Greek and Sicilian and Southern Italian, from salads and pizzas to meat and pasta dishes. Heck, I’ve even tossed them in eggs. They’re also used in a bunch of classic French and more-modern sauces and dressings, and go well with seafood, too.

I like them with chicken piccata: butterflied chicken breasts dredged through flour and dressed with melted butter, lemon juice, white wine, capers and a bit of chopped parsley. Delicious and elegant. They’re also just beautiful in salsa puttanesca, married with anchovies, basil, garlic, red pepper and tomatoes. That’ll curl your toes. And, they’re magnificent with lox and cream cheese, imparting delicate but formidable flavor. Little powerhouses, these jewels are.

If I’m particularly pushed for time I just toss them in pasta with olive oil, a speck of butter, lemon juice and diced, fresh tomatoes. Maybe a little scallion. Takes two seconds. Healthful and delicious. And really, the caper provides all the seasoning needed, save for a little ground pepper.

Try this to awaken your senses: order capers instead of olives in your next martini. Just a couple, since the flavor is intense. Drain the dregs then let the capers roll in, those verdant, saturated, imperfectly shaped rounds. Savor the particularly piquant marriage of grains, salt and mustard, the latter oil released during each bud’s growth. Enjoy the slightly chewy texture and peppery aroma. Caution, though: may never return to olives again.

At Hiller’s we carry nearly a dozen brands, plus several varieties, from the six sizes to chopped and wild to balsamic in salt. I love the look of the clinging, glistening grains of salt, which serve to absorb water on the outside and maintain moisture and freshness, but with no permeation (Still, you rinse the capers before eating). It has an organic simplicity about it, the ancient zeitgeist of far-flung lands. And that makes sense, since capers usually hail from Middle Eastern or other Mediterranean regions. Some grow in places like Spain, Morocco or Turkey. If it isn’t picked, by the way, the caper bud flowers and produces caperberry, fruit used for scrumptious Greek mezze, what we call hors d’oeuvres.

The caper is actually a perennial spring bush that bears roundish, fleshy leaves, fragrant flowers, and long, violet-colored stamen, and grows wild on walls or in rocky coastal areas.  Of course, the plant is best known for its edible buds, which are picked then pickled in salt or a salt and vinegar solution. Because a few go a long way, the nuggets are bottled in jars so quaint they tend to get lost. They are always worth the hunt, though.

Sensual satisfaction aside, they’re also a good source of iron and contain rutin, a powerful anti-oxident, and erucic acid, thought to be beneficial to cardiac health. They’re also said to contribute to healthy prostates, and reportedly contain more of the antioxident and anti-inflammatory quercetin per weight than any other plant.

As far back as  2000 B.C. caper bushes were said to have been used medicinally by the Sumerians, Greeks and Romans, mostly to aid digestion. In biblical times, the caperberry was apparently supposed to have aphrodisiac properties, the Hebrew word for it linked to the root for “desire.”

I’m not gonna argue.  What about you. Got Capers ?



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