Capers -- the condiment's condiment
Scripps Howard News Service
Must credit Winston-Salem Journal
With sidebar: CAPERSSIDE
By MICHAEL HASTINGS
Cooks should always have secret weapons to liven up dull dishes.
It may be mustard to spruce up a salad dressing or lemon juice to brighten a bowl of soup.
A favorite weapon in my arsenal has always been capers, a piquant flower bud of a Mediterranean bush.
Capers are what I think of as the condiment's condiment. They often add flavor to sauces, mayonnaises and dressings. They boast a pungency that is hard to pin down, but always improve the flavors of the other ingredients.
Their unusual flavor is hard to describe. For me, it's like rosemary with a punch.
The caper comes from the Capparis spinosa, a low, prickly bush native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia. The Greeks are credited with introducing capers to France in 600 B.C. Now, capers are mostly used in the cuisines of Spain, Italy and the Provence region of southern France.
The trick to harvesting capers is that the buds must be caught when closed and tight. Once picked, they are sun-dried and cured.
Most capers are brined or pickled in vinegar, and are typically sold in the pickle aisle of markets. Sometimes, capers are sold dry-cured in salt; these require a good 20-minute soak before using to tone down the saltiness.
Pickled or brined capers are sometimes rinsed before use. Rinsing is unnecessary in most cases, but it may be desirable, depending on the recipe and how salty or vinegary a particular jar of capers tastes.
Capers range from the size of a peppercorn to about the tip of a small finger. In general, the smaller, the better. Larger capers have a stronger flavor -- sometimes too strong. Many people consider the smallest type, the nonpareil capers of France, the best. Spain also uses larger caperberries -- the semi-mature fruit of the same bush -- that are about the size of an olive. Caperberries are generally milder than capers.
Pungent capers often go hand in hand with other strongly flavored Mediterranean ingredients, particularly garlic, olives and anchovies.
Capers are an important ingredient in Provencal tapenade, a black-olive paste, and Italian salsa verde, a brightly flavored herb sauce for fish.
Capers are natural partners with such other Mediterranean foods as eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Capers figure prominently in caponata, a Sicilian eggplant relish and puttanesca, the famous pasta sauce supposedly named after Neapolitan ladies of the night.
Capers typically are not cooked much, but often added to dishes near the end to preserve their flavor. This makes them useful in such quick dishes as piccata, a lemony sauce for chicken or veal that's easily accomplished on a busy weeknight.
Capers are great in mayonnaise, tartar sauce or remoulade. They are a traditional garnish, along with red onion, to a platter of smoked salmon.
Though capers are eaten with chicken, beef, lamb, pasta and vegetables, they go especially well with seafood.
Many fish dishes have been raised from good to great by the addition of a bit of melted butter, lemon juice and capers.
Makes 4 servings
2 large skinless and boneless chicken breasts, cut in half horizontally into cutlets (See Note)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dredging
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use (See note)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
1 minced shallot or 1 clove minced garlic
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup brined capers, rinsed
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 1/2 tablespoon of butter with 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil. When butter and oil start to sizzle, add 2 pieces of chicken and cook for 3 minutes. When chicken is browned, flip and cook other side for 3 minutes. Remove and transfer to plate. Melt 1/2 tablespoon of the butter and add remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil. When butter and oil start to sizzle, add the other 2 pieces of chicken and brown both sides in same manner. Remove pan from heat and add chicken to the plate.
Add shallot or garlic to skillet and cook 30 seconds. Add the lemon juice, stock and capers. Return to stove and bring to boil, scraping up brown bits from the pan for extra flavor. Check for seasoning. Simmer about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, check that chicken is cooked through; if necessary, return to pan for a minute or two (but remove before final addition of butter). Add remaining 1 tablespoon butter to sauce and whisk vigorously. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with parsley.
Note: If the breasts are small, use four and leave them whole; you should have four 5- to 6-ounce portions in all. This recipe was adapted slightly to cut down on the amount of butter and oil used to cook the chicken.
-- Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis, courtesy of www.foodnetwork.com.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/2 pound black olives, pitted (about 1-1/3 cups) (See note)
7 to 10 canned anchovy fillets (2 ounces)
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil, or more to taste
In a food processor, combine olives, anchovies, capers, garlic and lemon juice. Use the pulse button to grind to a chunky paste. Add the olive oil and process briefly until the oil is incorporated. Do not overprocess; the mixture should have some texture and not be a smooth puree. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for a week or more until ready to use.
Note: Use the best quality olives you can afford. Don't buy canned, pitted olives, which usually either lack flavor or have an off, soapy taste. Jarred nicoise or kalamata olives that you buy whole and pit yourself usually are safe choices, especially if it's a trusted brand you have tried before and liked. Some supermarkets have olive bars where you can buy quality olives.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1 bunch fresh parsley, stems discarded
Handful fresh basil leaves
Handful fresh mint leaves
4 canned anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed or thoroughly soaked if salted
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons red- or white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 slice good-quality white bread, crust removed, torn into pieces
2/3 to 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the parsley leaves in a food processor, being sure to avoid any large stems. Add the basil, mint, anchovies, capers, garlic, olives, vinegar, sugar and bread. Process in short bursts, using the pulse button until finely chopped. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a steady stream to make a thickish sauce.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, pepper and more vinegar if needed. Pour into a bowl and serve. If not using immediately, drizzle a little extra olive oil over the surface of the sauce, cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. Before serving, bring to room temperature and stir the surface oil into the sauce.
Note: This Italian sauce is traditionally served with bollito misto, a dish of boiled meats, but it is equally good with broiled or grilled seafood (especially monkfish or tuna), roasted or broiled vegetables, baked or fried chicken, and other foods.
-- "Sunshine Food" by Sophie Grigson (DK Publishing, 2001).
CAPER AND BROWN BUTTER SAUCE
Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons or 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Once it melts, continue cooking until the butter foams and begins to turn brown. Watch carefully or the butter may burn. As soon as it browns, add the capers, lemon juice and pepper, and remove from the heat.
Serve over chicken, fish, boiled potatoes or green beans.
Makes 4 servings
4 medium cloves garlic, minced to a paste or pressed through a garlic press
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes
4 teaspoons minced anchovies (about 8 fillets)
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, 1/2 cup juice reserved
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1/2 cup black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
Bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, mix the garlic with 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl and set aside. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta to the boiling water; stir to separate the noodles. Immediately heat the oil, garlic mixture, red-pepper flakes and anchovies in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.
Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, then return pasta to the pot. Add 1/4 cup of the reserved tomato juice and toss to combine.
Stir the capers, olives and parsley into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss to combine. Add more tomato juice, if necessary, to moisten the sauce. Taste and add salt if necessary. Serve immediately.
-- Adapted from "Italian Classics" (2002, Boston Common Press), by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)