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Article posted: 11/28/2012 10:25 PM

Off the beaten aisle: What do you make of capers

Capers star as a classic ingredient in puttanesca pasta sauce.

Capers star as a classic ingredient in puttanesca pasta sauce.

 

Associated Press

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By J.M. Hirsch

This week, it's flower power.

Because that's exactly what capers are and do -- they are the flower buds of a wild bush that lend serious flavor power to your cooking.

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Our story starts several thousand years ago, when capers moved from simple would-be blossoms to culinary colossus.

That's when the people of the Mediterranean realized that if they picked the buds of the caper bush before they opened, they could pickle them and use them to add a deliciously pungent flavor to their cooking.

And the pickling is key. Fresh caper buds are insanely bitter.

But once those buds have been dried in the sun and packed in brine, vinegar or dry salt (brining is the most common method today), the bitterness dissipates and the tender, green, pellet-shaped buds develop a deep salty, tangy flavor.

Most capers available in the U.S. are the sort found in Italy and southern France, where they are used to flavor sauces and seafood. Capers also grow in Spain, but the variety there tends to be larger and is consumed similar to olives.

Chances are good that you've had capers before. They are a standard ingredient in many Mediterranean seafood dishes (especially those involving tuna), and are a must-have for authentic puttanesca.

When shopping for capers, head to the pickle or Italian section of the grocer, where you will find them in small jars. Most will be packed in brine, the best of which are the "nonpareils" from France.

Capers that are dry-packed in salt are prized for their intense flavor, but usually are found only in specialty shops. They also must be rinsed very well before using. Brine- or vinegar-packed capers also can be rinsed, but it isn't essential.

If you happen to stumble upon something called caper berries, you've hit on a related but not identical ingredient. Caper berries are the fruit of the same bush. They are larger than capers, but can be pickled in the same way.

You also may sometimes find anchovies sold in tins wrapped around capers. These are especially delicious savory flavor bombs. Use them to doctor up homemade or purchased pasta sauce.

Capers generally are used as a flavor accent, a sort of finishing savory-salty bite for sauces, seafood, lamb and salads.

Just remember -- they are intense, so a little goes a long way. Once opened the bottles can be refrigerated for months.

For more ideas for using capers, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column on Food Network: http://bit.ly/GDtoAn

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