Culinarily speaking, capers are a small, round, dark-green condiment pickled in a salty brine. Similar to green olives, the curing process brings out their tangy, pungent, lemony flavor which pops in your mouth. Technically, they are the flower buds of the shrubby caper bush (Capparis spinosa), which grows in and around regions of the Meditterranean. The buds are picked before they flower, dried in the sun, and then packed in salt. It's a labor-intensive process, as they can only be harvested by hand. The buds range in size from that of a tiny baby pea to that of a small olive. They are sold by size and they are priced accordingly. They've been around since ancient times, and, for cooks then and now, they are an ingredient essential to the kitchen.
I am never without them, as they are common to many cuisines.
^^^ All parts of a caper bush are shown in the above photo: the round, fleshy leaves, the white-purple flowers, and the small, round buds. Capers are the pickled bud of this bush. This photo is courtesy of Dr. Roy Winkelman and was taken at the Bontanical Garden of Munich, Germany.
As per wikipedia, capers are categorized and sold by size, defined as follows: non-pariel (up to 7 mm), sufines (7-8 mm), capucines (8-9 mm), capotes (9-11 mm), fines (11-13 mm) and grusas (14+ mm). If the caper bud is not picked and allowed to flower and produce fruit, it is called a caper berry, which bears some resemblance to an olive, and, is mostly eaten like an olive -- as a snack. Caper leaves, which are extremely hard to find outside of the immediate areas where they are grown, are also pickled and preserved, and, are mostly added to salads or fish dishes.
Non-pariel. Is it a candy, a confection, or, a caper? Read on:
When I was a kid, non-pariel referred to small, round, domed chocolate candies (about the size of a quarter) sprinkled on their tops with white sugar dots. I used to buy them at Paperman's. Barney Paperman ran a specialty shop in our town that sold newspapers and magazines along with cigars, deli-meats and cheeses, and, a grand assortment of penny candies. The dots themselves, were and are sold separately, and were also called non-pariels. My mom always had a container of them and sprinkled them on all sorts of baked goods.
"Non-pariel" is a French term meaning "without equal", or "has no equal". Calling something "non-pariel" means, "it's the best".
When purchasing capers, those labeled non-pareil (non-puh-REHL) have been designated the best in flavor and texture -- they are also the most expensive. Others are good too, but, they tend to be a little tougher, larger, and not as delicate -- the smaller the caper, the more delicate in texture and intense in flavor it is. When cooking with capers, in most culinary applications, capers are added to cooked dishes near the end of the cooking process, which allows them to maintain their shape and taste. That said, if using larger capers, it's often recommended to chop them prior to adding them to cooked dishes. Always follow the recipe as directed.
Capers add flavor to vinaigrettes, salad dressings and creamy sauces, like horseradish, tartar and remoulade. They're common additions to egg, potato, pasta or tuna salads, not to mention the famous Niçoise salad. Egg dishes galore, like deviled eggs, eggs Benedict and plain scrambled eggs, benefit from a garnish of a caper or two or a few. They're a perfect topping for fish, chicken, meat or meatless meals -- one can't make chicken piccata or puttanesca without capers. Exotic soups and stews from all over the globe, especially those containing fish or seafood include capers. With lox and cream cheese on a bagel -- capers are non negotiable.
Capers -- an ingredient no kitchen should be without.
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017