A caper is a "frolicsome leap," "a capricious escapade" or a "questionable or illegal activity," according to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
A caper is also the brined bud of the caper bush, but some of the above descriptions could still apply.
You could say that these pungent, pea-size morsels offer a "frolicsome leap," or a bit of an adventure, into flavorful dining. (Hey, it's leap year, why not?)
Questionable? Well, a lot of people seem suspicious of these little buds, wondering what those little green things are in their pasta salad anchovies? Peppercorns? Cornichons? They often get lumped into that "nebulous" category of ingredients.
Capers play a supporting role in French, Italian, Greek and Spanish cooking because the prickly caper bush thrives in areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The immature flower buds are hand-harvested and preserved in vinegar or salt-cured. Pickling gives them a strong, salty-sour flavor. The fruit, or berries, of the caper bush are also pickled and look like large green olives with stems.
You've never eaten capers? Well, if you've had tapenade (olive spread) or Italian puttanesca sauce, or a chicken or veal picatta, you probably have. You might not have recognized them, but they're found in numerous local restaurant dishes.
"We go through upward of 1,000 cases of capers a year," said Sam Granato, whose Frank Granato Importing Co. supplies Mediterranean ingredients for restaurants and home cooks. "Not only are the caper buds used in cooking, but the larger caper berries are used as an hors d'oeuvre."
In Greece, capers are used along with olives in salads, or to enhance stews and spreads, according to author Susanna Hoffman in her book, "The Olive and the Caper" (Workman, $19.95).
Together, olives and capers "represent the union of hard work and nature, so very Greek in essence, and speak to the largesse of small offerings, a Greek credo," writes Hoffman.
"I love capers," said Marguerite Marceau Henderson, Salt Lake cookbook author. "Salad Nicoise is a French classic, and you have to have capers in the dressing. The lemon in it cuts the brininess of the capers. And chicken or veal picatta isn't a picatta without the capers."
Chicken picatta calls for chicken breast cutlets dredged in flour, browned and served with a sauce of butter, lemon juice, capers, and chicken stock or white wine.
Henderson saw caper bushes firsthand while traveling in Sicily. "There were caper bushes growing alongside the road, and you can see the little buds," she said. "I'd ask people what's this beautiful bush?"
Capers are used in several recipes from her latest cookbook, "Small Parties" (Gibbs Smith, $19.95). The Salmon Nicoise Salad is a twist on the usual tuna-based salad. And Chicken Under a Brick has a buttery garlic caper sauce.
"It's like a picatta, but you wrap two bricks in foil and get it really hot and put it on top of the chicken while it's cooking," Henderson said. "The weight makes an incredible crust, and it keeps the moisture inside the chicken. They do it in Italy a lot."
Smoked salmon is another Henderson favorite. "Make a spread using cream cheese, dill and lemon zest and a few chopped capers," she said. "Spread it on a bagel, top it with a slice of salmon and one ring of red onion and serve it open-face. It's New York on a plate."
Capers are very fish-friendly, said Henderson, noting that the classic Italian tonnato sauce uses tuna and capers. "And anchovies and capers together on a pizza are to die for."
She always throws in a tablespoon or two of capers in shallot-based salad dressings, too.
They're a boon for dieters, as they add a wallop of flavor with no fat. On the Nutrition Facts labels, a 1-teaspoon serving is listed as zero to two calories. Some people like to mash a few into their tuna-and-mayo mixture for sandwiches, or toss into salads for color and flavor.
Capers aren't cheap. A 4-ounce jar costs around $2.50 to $3. But, a little goes a long way; you only need a spoonful or two at a time. And if they're submerged in brine, they will keep up to six months in the refrigerator.
The smallest berries are called non-pareille and are favored by chefs due to their delicate texture and stronger flavor. The smaller the capers, the more expensive they are, due to high labor involved in collecting.
Capers are also used in Cuban dishes, because of the Spanish heritage, according to Adalberto Diaz, chef at Granato's and a native Cuban. "The Spanish used capers a lot, in tomato-based sauces and in sauces for fish," he said. "And capers are used in good-quality bean dishes. A high-end Cuban recipe for black beans will always include about a tablespoon of capers."
Diaz used capers in a swordfish recipe in a Cuban cooking class he taught last week at the Roth Concept Center. He added that the muffaletta sandwich served at the Granato delis uses a spread made of pureed capers, green olives, pickled vegetables and artichokes.
Caper berries are another point of confusion. Often set on appetizer and antipasto trays, many people mistake them for olives until they take a bite and find them full of tiny seeds.
"They almost look like okra when you open them up," Diaz said.
He recommends cutting them in half, emptying the seeds with a melon baller and stuffing the cavity with manchego cheese for an appetizer.So go ahead, be daring. Take a "frolicsome leap," a "capricious escapade." All it takes is a spoonful from a little jar.
ORANGE-SCENTED RAISIN TAPENADE
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
1/2 cup fresh parsley
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
16 crostini or toasted baguette slices
1/2 cup soft goat cheese
In a food processor, pulse raisins, olives, capers, parsley, olive oil, orange juice and grated orange zest together until coarse paste.To serve, spread about 1/2 tablespoon soft goat cheese on each crostini and mount 1 tablespoon raisin mixture on top. Garnish with strips of orange zest. Makes 16 appetizers. 2007 Wise Choice California Raisin Recipe Contest
CHICKEN UNDER A BRICK
4 chicken breast halves, skin on and bone in
2 bricks or a heavy cast-iron bacon presser
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning or herbs de Provence
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Place chicken in a mixing bowl with remaining ingredients. Toss well to coat evenly. This can be done several hours ahead and refrigerated. Wash the bricks. Wrap each with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place bricks in oven for 15 minutes to heat through. Heat a large oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat (large enough to hold the 4 chicken breasts).
Place the chicken in the skillet, along with the marinade, skin side down. Carefully remove bricks from oven and weigh down the chicken with the foil-covered bricks. Lower heat to medium and cook chicken 5-7 minutes. Place skillet in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, with the bricks still on top. The heat of the bricks will cook the bone side of the chicken.When chicken is done, carefully remove bricks from chicken and place chicken on serving platter, skin side up.
Garlic Caper Sauce:
Pan dripping from chicken with garlic and capers
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup white wine (or more chicken broth)
1 lemon, thinly sliced, for garnish
4 fresh rosemary sprigs, for garnish
In the skillet in which the chicken was cooked, add butter; cook until melted over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to combine with butter. Slowly whisk in the wine and broth. Cook 1-2 minutes over medium heat, until thickened slightly and bubbly. Pour over chicken; serve at once with lemon slices, rosemary sprigs and tomatoes. Serves 4. "Small Parties," by Marguerite Henderson (Gibbs Smith, $19.95)
SALMON NICOISE SALAD
2 pounds boneless, skinless salmon fillets
2 tablespoons olive oil
Brush both sides of salmon with oil; sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Heat an outdoor grill to medium, or use a grill pan on a stove top. Grill salmon fillets 4-5 minutes per side, until slightly pink in the center. Remove from grill; cool to room temperature or chill until ready to serve.
Lemon Mustard Vinaigrette:
Zest and juice of 2 large lemons
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
2 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a small bowl, whisk lemon zest and juice, mustard, garlic, parsley, tarragon, anchovies, capers, salt and pepper. While still whisking, slowly add oil until incorporated. This can be made a day ahead.
2 heads romaine lettuce, cleaned and cored
2 pounds new potatoes, quartered, cooked and chilled
8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
1 pound fresh green beans or asparagus spears, trimmed and blanched
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, washed and cut in half lengthwise
1 cup Nicoise olives (small black olives)
Place lettuce on a large serving platter. Cut salmon into 1-inch-thick slices and place on lettuce on one-fourth of the platter. Arrange potato quarters, eggs and beans or asparagus in individual section on the platter. Sprinkle tomatoes, olives and onion over the entire dish. Drizzle with Lemon Mustard Vinaigrette and serve at once. Serves 12. "Small Parties," by Marguerite Henderson (Gibbs Smith, $19.95)
4 swordfish fillets
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
1 red onion, sliced
1 red pepper, sliced
1 cup pepper-stuffed olives
1/4 cup capers
2 cups diced tomatoes in juice
1 tablespoon shrimp base, or 2 teaspoons salt
Mix flour with paprika and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pass fish through flour mixture just to coat it. In a saute pan heat at least 1 inch of oil. Fry fish over medium-high heat until just golden and place in a casserole dish. Drain most of the oil to a container for future use, if desired. In the same pan, saute onions and peppers until tender. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour this mixture over the fish and bake 10-15 minutes. Serve hot with slices of lemon. Adalberto Diaz, chef, Frank Granato Importing Co.
OLIVE AND CAPER TAPENADE
3/4 cup pitted Kalamata or other Greek black olives
4 large cloves garlic
4 anchovy fillets, preferably salt-packed
3/4 cup capers, drained
1/2 cup packed cup fresh basil leaves
2/3 cup olive oil
Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until chopped as fine as possible. Or use a chef's knife to finely chop the olives, garlic, anchovies, capers and basil, and then transfer mixture to a bowl and mix in the oil and lemon juice). Use right away, or store in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. "The Olive and The Caper," by Susanna Hoffman (Workman, $19.95)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
6 cloves minced garlic
2 (28-ounce) cans roma plum tomatoes, broken into pieces, with juice
1 cup tightly packed, pitted and halved Kalamata olives
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons drained capers
2 tablespoons minced anchovy fillets (about 8 fillets)
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed basil
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes
In a large pot heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the remaining ingredients except pasta and simmer until the sauce is thickened and slightly reduced, about 40 minutes. Adjust seasoning, to taste, cover and set aside. Add penne pasta to the pan and toss for 1 minute. "The Essence of Emeril," Food Network