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Cooking With Capers

Written by Ona J Bass on . Posted in food

What Are Capers?

Capers food grade, is the early morning flower buds from the capparis spinosa, commonly known as the flinders rose. It grows wild throughout the Mediterranean Sea area and up into Spain, as well was as eastward to the Himalayas. The flinders rose also puts on tiny berries and the leaves are also used in salads. 

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While edible, capers are not especially tasty in their natural state. Pickled, however, they are highly prized and used in a variety of recipes as a spice and flavoring agent.

The species capparis comes in a variety of sub species and grow around the world. Not all of them can be eaten, however, all are hardy, attractive plants that do well in adverse conditions.

Growing Wild

The Caper plant prefers arid locations for growth. It needs a long, warm growing season to put on fruit. While highly resistant to hot weather, they are susceptible to frost. They can be gathered wild, but this could be hazardous to the health of the amateur botanist as some variety of capparis are poisonous. Think of it as being on par with gathering wild mushrooms.

The wild capparis hunter needs to be familiar with the flinders rose, and to be sure of how to identify it. With that said, capparis spinosa grows everywhere in the lands near the Mediterranean Sea. It loves the long, hot summers and is highly tolerant of salt. It even grows in the cracks of old ruins, causing problems with preservation.

Harvesting

The tiny buds, the capers, must be gathered early in the morning before they bloom out. Once they have bloomed, they are no longer useful for pickling. The capers are rated by the size of the bloom, the tiniest ones being the most highly prized. One cook observed, however, that although they were quite strong when added to a food, the large capers had excellent flavor.

Even though they are prized as spices, some blooms must be allowed in order for the plants to put on fruit, which are called caperberries. Caperberries are also edible, as are the leaves of the caper bush. The caperberries often show up in little appetizers that go with alcoholic drinks, and they are sometimes added to mixed drinks instead of the olive. The leaves can be cooked in a variety of ways and are sometimes used in salads.

Propagation

Capparis spinosa, or flinders rose, can be propagated by planting seeds from the ripe fruit. Older seeds will need a cold cycle in order to germinate. Plants can also be started from cuttings in order to gain a true strain, but these plants are not as hardy in their first year as those from seeds. There are plantings of caper bush that are now twenty or thirty years old, indicating that the bushes can be a sustainable crop. They grow to be about three feet tall, and they are often planted either in squares or in hedge rows.

Although they are native to the Mediterranean area, horticulturalists and gardeners have experimented with growing capparis spinosa in other areas. It is not an unreasonable assumption that it should be possible, since variations of capparis grow around the world.

Caper bushes also have the happy ability to fix nitrogen, which makes them an exceptionally valuable plant, horticulturally speaking. Thanks to their hearty growth habits, they are excellent plants for reclaiming desert lands and holding down wind erosion.

Capers in Ancient Writings

Capers are mentioned in Ecclesiastes 12:5. One of the traditional uses of capers was as an aphrodisiac. The verse in question mentions a time in the life of humans when the caper would no longer be affective. Pliny also mentions capers, and it was considered to be a carminative.

Carminatives were supposed to help digestion and relieve gas. An extensive discussion of caper sepals (the blossom) vs. the seed is carried out in the Talmud Bavli. These references tell us that capers have been a part of the diet in the Mediterranean area for a long time.

How to Use Capers

Capers, that is the pickled buds of the caper plant, are used in cooking as flavoring or garnish. Capers’ flavor resembles that of black pepper or mustard. As they go through the pickling process, they release mustard oil. The pickled capers will keep very well as long as they are immersed in their own brine.

It is not a good idea, however, to add vinegar after the capers have been opened. The vinegar that has not been part of the pickling process can make the jar of capers spoil. The caper brine can be used as an ingredient to flavor fish, stews or soups, as well as the capers themselves.

Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, and they are also used in the making of tartar sauce. The caper berries are also pickled, and are sometimes used as Greek Mezze, which is a dish served with alcoholic beverages or as one of the beginning courses for  several course meals. The leaves are also used and can be boiled or pickled, but they are not commonly marketed outside Greece or Cyprus. In locations where they are used, they are often added to green salads.

Capers are graded by size, and some of the larger ones are too strong to eat whole, so they are chopped and used in a variety of recipes. Chopped capers have the happy ability to disintegrate in a soup or sauce, imparting flavor generally without the flavor burst that is inevitable with a whole caper.

Substitute for Capers

Since capers are not universally available, the wise cook will develop a repertoire of substitutes for capers. These include marjoram buds, green nasturtium seed pods, cilantro seeds, dandelion flower buds if picked while tightly closed, green olives, thyme, and green peppercorns.

The substitute that you select will depend upon the effect you are trying to achieve. If you are going for texture, the nasturtium seeds, dandelion flower buds, green olives or green peppercorns are your best bet. Most of these items will need to be pickled before using as capers.

Marjoram, cilantro, and thyme are more of a similar flavor boost to the dish you are preparing. Try them on something ordinary before using them on a dish made for “company.” Each has a distinctive flavor which, while it will not completely mimic the peppery, mustardy flavor of capers, will lend that certain something to whatever you are cooking.

A good way to duplicate the general flavor and effect of real capers is to add both the pickled substitute and such herbs and spices as will enhance the desired effect.

Caper Brine

Caper brine is the salt and vinegar solution used to pickle capers. Similar solutions can be used to pickle the substitutes. As the capers become pickled, some of their properties leak out into the brine. Pickling in brine is a fermentation process, not unlike that used in making sauerkraut or kimchi. This sort of fermentation process helps create probiotics, the good bacteria that assists digestion.

Pickled Capers

  • ½ cup fresh capers (wash before pickling)
  • ½ cup vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Place your caper or caper substitute in a small jar. Mix the pickling solution in a glass measuring cup (makes it easy to pour) and pour it over your capers or caper substitutes. Make sure the solution covers the items being pickled completely. Cover the jar, and let it set for at least three days. Open it, check the flavor, and if you are satisfied with it, refrigerate for later use.

Salt Brine Capers

Wash and Soak the capers overnight. Dissolve 1 tablespoon kosher salt in 1 pint distilled water. Pour the soaking water off the capers and spread them on a paper towel to dry. You don’t have to dry them completely, just get the soaking water mostly off them.

Next, place them in a wide-mouthed mason jar, and pour the brine over them. Allow them to ferment at room temperature for about three days. They should begin to have a yeasty, fermentation odor, similar to sauerkraut. You might want to put a tray under the jar to catch drips as the fermentation process might bubble over a bit. At the end of the three days, refrigerate your capers.

Capers can also be packed in dry salt, similar to the way roasted peanuts are preserved in salt.

Black Capers

While most capers are capparis spinosa and grow around the Mediterranean Sea, the black caper is Capparis cynophallophora, or the Jamaican caper. Black capers grow on Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, and in Florida.

Unlike the capparis spinosa, capparis cynophallophora is a small tree. However, the buds, blooms and leaves look very much like their bushy cousins. The seed pods, however are distinctly different. Whereas capparis spinosa seeds are compact and round and open to reveal tiny black seeds, capparis cynophallophora has elongated white pods that more closely resemble a bean and that show a scarlet lining when open.

Capparis cynophallophora is not sold as an edible plant, although it has some medicinal uses. It is more often used as an ornamental. Its wood is highly prized for fenceposts and for making charcoal. Its heartwood is yellow, tinged with red. It is also used for hedges. The birds love the seeds. The blooming trees have a lemony scent.

Other Capparis and Capers

Capparis indica or the white caper tree is often confused with Capparis cynophallophora, the black caper tree. There are, in fact, “caper” plants of one sort or another growing in nearly every part of the world.

For example, the bladderpod, Peritoma arbore, is a member of the caper family. Native to California, it is a hardy edible plant that also goes by names such as burrofat and California Cleome. It is prized as a xeriscape garden plant, is extremely attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. Like other caper plants, bladderpod has a strong flavor in its native state, but cooked with a little onion creates a mild flavored relish that can be added to other foods.

Recipes to make Caper Substitutes

Nasturtium Capers

Collect the green seed pods as they form or use the unopened buds as you might with regular capers.

Hint: the seed pods become hard as they mature, so try for young pods. The ones that can be just dented with a fingernail are best. The nasturtium pods are more durable than the blossoms, which tend to be somewhat delicate.

Brine Solution:

1 liter of water to 50-60 Grams salt

Nasturtium pods sufficient to fill your container.

Fermentation method

Mix the brine. Pick young nasturtium seed pods that are still green and can be dented with a fingernail. Separate the nasturtium seed pods, wash them and pack them loosely in a stoneware crock.

Add a sprig of marjoram and ½ teaspoon cilantro seeds to the jar, pour the salt water over the seeds. Place a plate over the seeds to keep them in the brine, then cover the crock with a piece of muslin secured with a string or rubber band to keep insects and dust out of the jar.

Allow the seeds to ferment in the crock at room temperature – about 68 to 70 degrees F. for ten days. Check the mixture daily. Skim off any mold or scum that develops on top, then stir. It is a fermentation process, so you can expect some bubbles. It should develop a yeasty odor similar to fermenting sauerkraut or rising yeast dough.

At the end of the ten days, it should be nicely pickled, and the seeds should be somewhat tender. Place the mixture in a sterilized jar, top with a jar lid and screw band, and refrigerate.  Use a few of the capers in various dishes, as desired.

Vinegar Version

Steep pods in the salt solution for about 24 hours. Drain, and allow the seeds to dry. Place in a sterilized jar, filling it up to the shoulder or about a ¼ inch below the threads for the screw band. Add the spices, cover with vinegar, and add acid resistant lid. Allow to steep for about ten days. Store in a cool, dark location.

Alternative Caper Substitutes

Using the recipe for nasturtium capers, substitute green dandelion blossoms. Pick just before the dandelions are ready to open and prepare as above.

Recipes with Capers or Caper Substitutes

Tuna Steaks with capers and lemon

  • 4 tuna steaks
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Capers
  • Minced Parsley
  • Whole parsley for garnish

Cut the lemon in half, juice it, and then grate the outside of the peel for lemon zest. Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan and add the herbs and lemon. Set this sauce aside.

Broil or grill the salmon steaks until they are still just a little bit pink in the middle. Drizzle the warmed sauce over the salmon, garnish with a sprig of parsley and serve.

Chicken Piccata

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 eggs
  • Flour
  • Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon small capers or minced caper

Slice the chicken breasts into thin strips. Beat the eggs in a shallow dish, place the flour in a different shallow dish, and the breadcrumbs in a third. Squeeze the lemon juice into a small container, and grate some of the rind off to make lemon zest. Heat the butter and lemon zest and capers in a non-stick frying pan.

Meanwhile, dip a strip of chicken in the egg, then the flour then back to the egg and finally into the dish of bread crumbs. Then place the breaded chicken strip in the butter and herb mixture. Cook the chicken on medium heat until it is done completely through and browned on both sides.

Set the cooked chicken aside in a warmed, covered dish while you prepare the sauce. Add a tablespoon more flour to the pan drippings and stir well. Pour in the chicken broth (you can use white wine if you’d rather). Cook over medium heat, stirring gently until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and keep stirring until the thickening action stops.

Serve on a bed of wild rice and accompany the dish with a green salad.

The Last Word on Capers

Capers are an old-world food that has been around for centuries. It has had its place in ancient writings and medicine. It has a unique flavor that is not found in any other spice, but it is possible to substitute other spices that will taste good in your cooking. The flavor is generally peppery, or mustardy, with some capers sliding over into a more horseradish sort of flavor.

The Capparis species grows around the world. Some of the plants are edible, some are medicinal, and some are simply grown as ornamentals. They tend to be extremely hardy in warm, dry conditions. When edible capparis buds are not available, other edible flowers can be accompanied by pungent herbs to achieve a similar flavor.

Capparis plants from other regions might not taste like capparis spinosa. Some, like the Capparis tomentosa, or wooly caper bush, are toxic. Capparis tomentosa grows in some parts of Africa, where it is used as a medicinal.

Capers come from an amazing and unusual plant. Next time you enjoy Chicken Picatta, you might take a moment to reflect on this amazing culinary plant.

Ona J Bass

Ona J Bass

Ona Jo Bass grew up on a small farm in the middle of the United States. Food and farming are two things that go together. She learned how to harvest food and prepare simple meals from scratch. As a young woman, she discovered that you can’t always walk out the back door and pick a meal. Cooking from scratch helped stretch her budget and, after a few mistakes, she learned how to make tasty food from basic ingredients from the grocery store.

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