Monday, February 9, 2009

Capers and Caperberries

Yesterday we put on a 5-course Sicilian-themed dinner for the local Accademia Italia della Cucina chapter. The pasta course was my so-called Ed's pasta, one that I make with browned garlic, anchovies, capers, artichokes, tomatoes, basil, and white wine. For yesterday's version, I substituted caperberries for capers and used half sun-dried tomatoes for more texture.

As I was visiting tables during the course of the dinner, several people asked me about the caperberries and what they are. Before I delve into that, this photo shows the three forms that we use here at the restaurant. On the left are the teardrop-shaped caperberries and on the right in the back are large salted capers. In the right front are small pickled nonpareil capers. Nonpareil means "without peer or equal" in French and refers to the highest grade of capers. Click on the photo to see these in more detail.

The caper bush (Capparis spinosa) is a perennial Mediterranean spine-bearing shrub. It reminds me somewhat of our native honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) in habit and structure, but the four-petalled white blooms sport a profusion of very long pink or purple stamens that remind me of Spider plant (Cleome spp.).

The buds of this shrub are picked before they open and are salted or pickled to produce what we know as capers. If the plant blooms and sets fruit and this fruit is picked green and then pickled, the result is caperberries. If you slice open a caperberry, you'll see a profusion of tan seeds that are reminiscent of mustard seeds. The seeds darken as the fruit ripens and as the fruit ripens, it takes on the hues of ripe figs.

Caperberries taste very similar to capers. The texture is different, of course.

Capers are probably a signature ingredient for me. I eat them often because I love them so and my wife claims that I don't make anything "without those damned capers" that she does not like. I use the large salted capers for seasoning long-cooked dishes such as caponata. I use nonpareil capers mainly for pastas, but also as garnishes on dishes. Caperberries come into play in pastas, as garnishes such as for my terrines in place of cornichons, and as martini garnishes.

And now you know probably more than you wanted to know about capers.

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