Capers come from a perennial shrub that can burst with showy flowers of pinkish white. But flowers are a sign of inattention -- the small gray delicacies we know as capers are flower buds, assiduously plucked before the flower can form.
Capers have long been a feature of Mediterranean cuisine. Bushes bud rapidly and require daily attention in season, accounting for the caper's relatively high cost. The buds are green when picked but are seldom eaten raw. Their pungent taste comes from capric acid, developed by pickling. They range in size from the petite nonpareils of southern France (widely considered the world's finest) to Italian varieties as large as a fingertip. They're usually bottled in brine but are occasionally dry-packed in salt. Either way, a gentle washing will remove any excess salt.
When the buds are left to flower, the bush forms an olive-sized fruit known as the caper berry. Caper berries are particularly popular in Spain, where they sit alongside olives as premeal restaurant nibbles.
Capers marry well with fish and lamb and are used to flavor rice and meatballs. They figure into sauces like remoulade and tartar and are a delicious addition to lemon and mustard sauces for chicken and veal.
The caper bush requires semiarid conditions, but it's not picky about soil types. It can grow in clay, sand and even on bare rock. In fact, its hardiness is a serious problem for the preservation of antiquities -- it grows spontaneously on the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem and in the wall joints of ancient Roman fortresses.
> Chicken Scaloppine with Capers, Olives and Basil
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
2/3 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
2 cups hot cooked spaghettini
Fresh lemon juice
Pound chicken between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap to about 1/4 -inch thick. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper and dredge in flour to coat lightly.
Heat oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side. Add wine and cook until reduced by about half, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium. Add chicken broth, capers, olives and basil.
Cover and cook until chicken is tender, about 5 minutes. Place chicken over hot cooked spaghettini and spoon sauce, capers, olives and basil over chicken. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Serves 4.
(Recipe by Greg Patent).
Per serving: 360 calories, 8g fat, 85mg chol., 38g prot., 28g carbs., 2g fiber, 720mg
Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.