Creative Sustenance

Culinary and other adventures in foraging, gardening, urban farming and more, in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Capers

I post a lot of food pics and updates on my personal facebook page that I don't share here. At least that's been my habit up to now. Most of those posts are more informal and certainly briefer than the content I'm used to submitting on the blog. But I suppose if people wanted to see those images along with a bit lengthier supporting text, reproduced here on the blog, I could do that. Let me know what you think (either here or via facebook).

Yesterday made a facebook status update with an image of some bruschetta (left) that I made with limited ingredients we had in the house at the time, including capers. The update sparked some conversation on the merits and edibility of capers. One of my friends described them as tasting "like pickled, salty, raisins. Gross." That got me thinking, because while I enjoy capers now, my initial reaction to them years ago was much the same as that of my friend. Repeated sampling over the years has given me a greater appreciation for the little unopened flower buds, and I now find them indispensable as an ingredient in a number of recipes and dishes. My relationship with capers has followed a path similar to the one I had with anchovies, which I initially disliked rather intensely but now see as a requisite pantry staple.

Wikipedia has a brief, though solid entry on capers, on their biology, environmental requirements, propagation, history and culinary uses:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper. Capers have been used for thousands of years, with a few notable ancient Greeks giving the plant due attention, and with allusions to its alleged aphrodisiac qualities also noted by the ancient Hebrews. Interesting stuff, this history of food.

Four different capers from the pantry.

I use capers in pasta dishes, some sauces, bruschetta toppings and other tapas, and of course with fish like salmon, which is a traditional pairing. They offer a nice tart, acidic element to oily fish or rich sauces, as well as a counterbalance of sorts in salads that have strong citrusy or even fruity profiles. If you've tried capers and were initially turned off by them, I'd suggest you not give up yet. Try different varieties and brands (the preserving brine has a lot to do with the flavor, and there are of course as many different brine recipes out there as there are for any other pickled vegetable). Find recipes you like where capers are a key ingredient, and make the recipe with and without their addition to learn what they may contribute.

Capers come in different sizes, with nonpareilies being, I believe, the smallest, most common and most desirable. I've included a couple images of different capers I have in the fridge, including some nasturtium capers I made myself from the seeds of the peppery flowers we grow in our garden. In the image above, from left to right, we have a small group of capers followed by seemingly identical capers from an unknown terroir. The first little bunch were packaged in a small jar, not quite 4 oz worth, and have a very nice, mellow and slightly lemony flavor. The second bunch came from a large, 16 oz. jar I purchased at Whole Foods, and their flavor is quite salty, briney and closer to cheap green olives (or to the description my facebook friend gave capers in general). Both jars were also pretty close in price as I recall. You get what you pay for I suppose.

Next on the plate are caper berries. Capers are the unopened flower buds of the caper plant. If the buds are not picked for use as capers, but are left alone, they will eventually become flowers, which in turn will become a seed-filled caper fruit, or "berry". These caper berries are then picked and processed in much the same way as regular capers. They do, however, have a rather different flavor and texture than their softer predecessors. Caper berries are crunchy. They're filled with crunchy little seeds, and the ones that I've tried have had more of a slightly peppery, citrusy, pickled olive flavor. my favorite way to use caper berries is as a Bloody Mary or Martini garnish. They're perfect for that.

l-r: capers, caperberries, nasturtium capers

Finally, on the far right of the plate, are the pickled nasturtium seeds. These pea-sized seeds make quite an interesting substitute caper. They have an intriguing flavor profile that combines the slight peppery bite of nasturtiums with the sweetness of the sugared brine I made, and a potent, unmistakable flavor of sweet cream butter. I never would have imagined that I'd get the flavor of fresh butter from pickled nasturtium seeds, but it's there in force. Amazing. And now here's where I embarrass myself by admitting that I made the foolish, rookie mistake of not writing down the brine recipe I used to make those nasturtium capers. I don't remember what it was and I kick myself every time I open that jar to pluck a few of the last remaining "capers" from it. I may not ever get that rich butter vibe again (although I'm hoping I get lucky). Always write down your recipes if it's something new you're trying.

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