Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tastes of Italy: Capers

These pungent Mediterranean treasures come from the bud of blossoming bushes, and the best are found near Sicily. Enhanced by a pickling process fundamental to their cultivation, their tart and briny flavors enrich sauces, spreads and garnishes.

Capers occupy a permanent post in the Italian kitchen. The tiny, piquant buds are enjoyed from region to region, up and down the boot. In Sicily capers are served in caponata, a summer side dish in which their saline bite cuts through the rich taste of tender, slow-cooked eggplant. In Naples they adorn spaghetti alla puttanesca, a fiery dish with roots in working-class brothels, and might combine with tomatoes and anchovies in a pasta fredda to create a light yet assertive sauce. The tangy orbs are often sprinkled over pizza, pasta, and fish dishes as a flavorful garnish, and they appear in a variety of sauces.

Sicily and the Aeolian island of Salina produce the majority of Italy’s capers. The best, though, come from Pantelleria. On this tiny island, halfway to Tunisia, volcanic soil and the heat of an intense Mediterranean sun create ideal growing conditions. The bushy plant has a thick cluster of thorny branches and fleshy, ovoid leaves. They can grow as high as two meters, but more often sprawl out over rocks and soil. From April to June, their tiny buds flower into large, sweet-scented, pink blooms clustered with long, violet stamens.

When choosing capers, look for dark green buds packed tightly in sea salt, because those submerged in vinegar lack the subtle, vegetal taste of salted capers. Also, size matters: Smaller buds have a more delicate flavor. True Italian capers are sorted by millimeter with mechanized screens. They range from 7 millimeters to 16 millimeters, but in stores their size is not often marked. Look for buds no larger than a raisin. Larger ones have less taste and could be frauds—sometimes the similar-looking buds of the nasturtium plant are passed off as capers. When using salted capers, soak them for five to ten minutes and drain to remove any excess salt - those in vinegar only require rinsing.

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