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Capers: What They Are, How to Use Them, and 7 Fun Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

pickled caper buds

pickled caper buds

What Are Capers?

Look in the dictionary, and you will find several definitions of the word caper:

Caper (kay-per)

noun

  1. a playful leap or skip
  2. a prank or trick
  3. a frivolous, carefree episode or activity
  4. the pickled flower bud of a spiny shrub of the Mediterranean region

Obviously, today we are talking about food, specifically the caper bud. (I don't leap, skip, prank, or "frivol."

He brought her gifts all the things that he had come to know and love in the forest and from the open steppes; wild cucumbers and cassia melon, grapes and figs and caper buds from the dry rocks. He brought her blossoms of golden mimosa and fragrant branches of jasmine.

— The Epic of Gilgamesh (written c. 2150-1400 BCE)

First, They Were a Love Offering

Gilgamesh might have been playful, frivolous, and carefree, but when he sought to entice the woman of his desire, he gifted her with cucumbers, melons, grapes, figs, and caper buds.

A wise man was he. He recognized the value of these strange-looking, salty, pea-sized buds of the Capparis spinosa, a low-growing shrub native to arid regions in the Middle East and Mediterranean basin. The name “spinosa” is a valuable hint at the physiology of these treasures. The plant from which the tiny flower buds are plucked is prickly, and the painstaking work can only be done by hand. Because the buds develop and fade quickly, the harvesting process must be conducted on a daily basis. They are then dried in the sun.

beautiful caper flower

beautiful caper flower

There Are Several Categories of Capers

After drying, the buds are sorted by size; the smallest are named “non pareilles” and are the most expensive. Next in (increasing) size are surfines, capuchins, fines, and capotes. The largest are about the size of an olive and are labeled ‘caper berries.’

Capers are not naturally sour; to obtain the briny/salty flavor for which they are famous they must be cured in seasoned vinegar, a process that has been used for thousands of years. Yes, you read that correctly. The process of curing capers has been going on for a thousand years.

Pedanius Dioscorides was born in Cilicia, Aisa Minor (present-day southeastern coast of Turkey) in 40 A.D. He studied medicine at a nearby school in Tarsus. (Biblical scholars will recognize that name as the birthplace of Saul, later St. Paul).

The given name Dioscorides is Greek, but Pedanius is a Roman name; therefore we assume that a Roman of that name sponsored him to become a Roman citizen. Trained as a physician and botanist and employed by the Roman army as a medic, he is most famous as the author of De Materia Medica, a 5-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine. Dioscorides mentioned the Capparis spinosa often in his writings. Greeks and Romans alike highly regarded the fruits as an aid in digestion.

How to Use Capers to Enhance a Dish

What's so good about capers? If you like briny, pickle-like, puckery flavors you will love the taste of capers. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we find that a pasta sauce, salad, or main dish falls flat. It seems to be lacking "something" that we just can't put our finger on.

Don't reach for the salt and pepper shakers. Maybe all you need is a tablespoon of capers. Yes, they are salty, but they also have a sour/umami flavor that can help brighten that otherwise ho-hum dish. If you don't want your family or guests to actually see the capers, simply mince them up. No one will be the wiser.

7 Caper-Inspired Recipes

  1. Carb Diva's (that's me!) Light Lemon/Caper Potato Salad (V)
  2. Mediterranean Three-Bean Salad (V)
  3. Best Chicken Piccata Recipe Ever
  4. Roasted Cauliflower with Mustard Caper Brown Butter (V)
  5. Carb Diva's Mock Tuna Salad (V)
  6. Creamy Lemon Garlic Salmon Piccata
  7. Tomatoes Nicoise (V)

(V) = vegetarian

Carb Diva's Light Lemon/Caper Potato Salad

Carb Diva's Light Lemon/Caper Potato Salad

1. Carb Diva's Light Lemon/Caper Potato Salad

Here we abandon mayonnaise and sour cream but gain tons of bright flavor from lemon, capers, and fresh parsley.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup)
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
  • 1/2 cup diced or crumbled feta cheese (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place potatoes in a large pot with a lid. Cover with water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn heat to low and simmer until potatoes are tender (a sharp knife inserted in the middle of the potato will enter easily).
  2. Drain the potatoes and place them on the chopping board. Let sit a few minutes until cool enough to handle.
  3. Remove the skins from the potatoes. They should slip off easily with the tip of a knife. Chop the potatoes and place them in a large bowl with the sliced red onion.
  4. Whisk together the lemon zest, dry mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, and capers. Drizzle over the still-warm potatoes. Toss to coat. Add black pepper and toss again.
  5. Just before serving stir in chopped parsley. Salad can be served chilled or at room temperature. Garnish with feta cheese if desired.
Mediterranean Three Bean Salad

Mediterranean Three Bean Salad

2. Mediterranean Three Bean Salad

Suzy created The Mediterranean Dish as the top source for Mediterranean recipes and Mediterranean diets. But, let me share her words with you for a full explanation of her mission for this blog.

When you think Mediterranean, tasty foods from places like Italy and Greece come to mind. But the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea extends far beyond.

The Mediterranean Dish is a personal food blog dedicated to celebrating flavors of the Mediterranean from Europe to North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean (The Holy Land). I am not completely familiar with every Mediterranean recipe, but I am so excited to go on this journey. I hope you’re up for it as well!

Her Mediterranean three-bean salad is fresh, colorful, and full of flavor. Need I say more?

Best Chicken Piccata Recipe EVER

Best Chicken Piccata Recipe EVER

3. Best Chicken Piccata Recipe Ever

Jen and Beau live in Vero Beach, Florida. They love fishing, salt water, and being outside (if you live on the coast of Florida and DON'T love those things, you don't deserve to be there). And, they have created a neat food blog named SoDamnDelish where they share recipes that are simple, basic, and doable by anyone. Their recipe for Chicken Piccata is (in their words and mine) the Best Chicken Piccata Recipe Ever.

4. Roasted Cauliflower With Mustard Caper Brown Butter

4. Roasted Cauliflower With Mustard Caper Brown Butter

4. Roasted Cauliflower With Mustard Caper Brown Butter

Carol is a personal chef, former newspaper columnist, recipe develop, photographer, and "obsessed cookbook collector." She used roasted cauliflower steaks in place of chicken breasts in this wonderful vegetarian version of chicken piccata.

5. Carb Diva's Mock Tuna Salad

A while ago I found myself in the midst of a vegetarian kerfuffle!

My daughter is a devout (I'm not exaggerating) vegetarian, but she still pines for the taste of foods she enjoyed in her childhood. There are many manufacturers of protein substitutes that mimic the taste and texture of beef or chicken, and most are very good. However, there are few if any products that reproduce the taste of seafood.

Canned tuna is one of those food loves my daughter still craves, and so I set out to find a way to replicate the taste and texture of tuna salad without killing a fish.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces tempeh
  • 1/2 cup celery, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup onion, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons dill pickle, finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
  • 1 sheet nori, crumbled (optional)
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon dill pickle relish

Instructions

  1. Place the tempeh in a steamer basket. Steam over simmering water for 20 minutes. Remove from basket and set aside to cool (about 30 minutes).
  2. Grate tempeh on the large hole side of a box grater or chop finely. Place in mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss lightly. Taste for seasoning and add salt and/or ground pepper if desired.
  3. You may use it immediately, but I think this "tuna salad" tastes better if the flavors are allowed to meld for an hour or more in the refrigerator.

What Is Tempeh?

According to Wikipedia, tempeh is a soy product that is originally from Indonesia. It is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form, similar to a very firm vegetarian burger patty.

Tempeh begins with whole soybeans, which are softened by soaking and then dehulled and partly cooked.

What Makes This Recipe Work?

  • Unlike tofu, tempeh has a firm, meaty texture which, when grated, better replicates the mouth-feel of canned tuna.
  • Many of the flavors that we enjoy in tuna salad are ingredients other than canned tuna. Creamy mayonnaise, crisp celery, tangy dill pickle, a bit of pungent minced onion--these are the things of which a good tuna salad is made.

What to Do With Mock Tuna Salad?

  • make a traditional tuna salad sandwich--white or whole-grain bread, tuna salad, fresh lettuce leaves, sliced tomato (optional), and perhaps a smear of Dijon mustard.
  • Create a salad by placing an ice cream scoop of "tuna salad" on a bed of salad greens. Surround with grape tomatoes, black olives, sliced hard-boiled egg, avocado slices, and chopped walnuts, and drizzle with your favorite salad dressing.
  • Spread "tuna salad" on a slice of rustic bread. Top with a slice of cheese and another slice of bread. Grill or toast in a panini press.
Creamy Lemon Garlic Salmon Piccata

Creamy Lemon Garlic Salmon Piccata

6. Creamy Lemon Garlic Salmon Piccata

If fish, specifically salmon is your thing you will enjoy this salmon with creamy lemon garlic sauce created by Karina for her blog CafeDelites. I live in the Pacific Northwest where fresh salmon is wild (not farmed), rich in nutrients, and sustainable. My family loves this dish, and I hope you will give it a try.

Tomatoes Nicoise

Tomatoes Nicoise

7. Tomatoes Nicoise

(The following recipe was published online by the New York Times)

Ingredients

  • 1 small shallot, finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 anchovy fillets, 2 finely chopped and 6 for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped black niçoise or oil-cured olives, plus whole olives for garnish
  • 6 small red tomatoes
  • 12 cherry tomatoes in assorted colors
  • 1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed
  • 12 basil leaves

Instructions

  1. Make the vinaigrette: Put the shallot in a small bowl. Add garlic, salt, and pepper, and cover with red wine vinegar. Macerate for 10 minutes, then whisk in olive oil, chopped anchovy, and chopped olives.
  2. Cut each tomato crosswise into 2 thick slices. Place slices on a platter in one layer and season with salt and pepper. Season cherry tomatoes with salt and dress with vinaigrette. Spoon cherry tomatoes and vinaigrette evenly over tomato slices.
  3. Top each tomato slice with half an anchovy filet, then sprinkle with capers. Garnish with basil leaves and whole olives. Serve at cool room temperature.

© 2017 Linda Lum