On Nutrition

What ingredients come to mind when you think of Mediterranean cuisine? Olive oil? Probably. Red wine? Likely. Capers? Not necessarily. But while the Mediterranean diet’s healthfulness may hinge on its heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and its rich phytochemical content, pleasure and flavor are also key. After all, an eating plan that tastes good and makes you feel good is one you’re likely to stick with. Capers, like most plant foods, are rich in health-promoting phytonutrients — and they’re packed with flavor.

Capers are the flower buds of the spiny evergreen shrub Capparis spinosa, also known as Flinders rose or, more simply, the caper bush. It’s native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia, and while it can theoretically grow in USDA zones 8 to 10 (including Seattle, zone 8b), it prefers poor, dry, rocky or sandy soil in full sun.

It’s a common misconception that capers are caper berries, but they are two different things, and quite distinct visually. While capers can be as small as peppercorns — nonpareil capers, which have the best flavor and texture — or as large as peas, caper berries are the size of a small olive. Fresh capers are unpleasantly bitter, but curing them (either by brining or by packing them in salt) takes the bitter edge off, leaving them pleasantly salty and acidic, similar to brined green olives.

Capers date back to 600 B.C, and are frequent players in the cuisines of southern Italy and France, and a key ingredient in tapenade. If you’ve ever used a sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of lemon to liven up a fish fillet or some cooked veggies, capers can give you a similar effect. Once opened, capers keep in the fridge for about a year, putting them on par with dry pantry staples in terms of usefulness and longevity. Drain brined capers and rinse salt-cured capers before using. My first encounter with capers was decades ago in chicken piccata. Today, I use them in that dish and many others. Here are some of my favorite uses for capers:

  • Add them to scrambled eggs, perhaps with a little feta.
  • Roast new (baby) potatoes in olive oil and salt, toss them with capers, and serve with lemon wedges.
  • Stir 2 tablespoons capers and 1 teaspoon lemon juice into 1/3 cup mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper. Use this creamy, flavorful sauce on salmon or other fish, or as a dip for artichoke leaves.
  • Mix 1 can drained and rinsed white beans with one can undrained olive oil-packed tuna, 2 tablespoons capers and lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Serve over salad greens.
  • Scatter capers over roasted meats or vegetables.
  • Add to tomato-based pasta sauce — with or without meat — seasoned with garlic, basil and oregano. Capers are a classic flavor pairing with all of those ingredients.
  • Toss roasted cauliflower with 2 tablespoons capers, the juice of one lemon, and 1 ounce of grated Parmesan cheese. Optional: chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley.
  • Toss arugula with a mustardy vinaigrette, some capers, and some chopped almonds.
  • Add capers to a pasta or grain salad
  • Once we get to local tomato season, mix 3 cups chopped tomatoes, ½ cup crumbled feta, ½ cup halved Kalamata olives, ¼ cup each finely chopped basil and flat-leaf parsley, 2 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil and 1-2 tablespoons capers. Cook 12 ounces (dry) penne pasta, drain, toss with your no-cook sauce, and serve!