Capers (Recipe: chicken marbella)
Updated June 2010.
I love capers — the classy film "To Catch a Thief," the ditzy "How to Steal a Million", the ridiculous "Pink Panther", and anything funny with Robert Redford.
I'm not quite as in love with the kind of capers you put in your mouth — and yet they are always in The Perfect Pantry, because sometimes a recipe calls for them, and nothing else will do.
The caper is the unopened flower bud of a wild shrub that thrives in Mediterranean climates, from Spain and France to the northern Sahara and Iran. The pink flowers have an extremely short life, opening in the morning and wilting by noon. Very early in the day, the unopened buds are picked by hand. They're allowed to wilt for a day or two, then are graded for size — nonpareil (0-7 mm), surfines (7-8 mm), capucines (8-9 mm), capottes (9-11 mm), fines (11-13 mm), and grusas (14+ mm). The smallest capers, nonpareils from France, are considered the best.
After grading, capers are immediately brined in vinegar, or dry-packed in salt, so they need to be rinsed before use. They pair well with artichokes, fish, fatty meats like lamb, olives, potatoes, and tomatoes, and are an essential component of tapenade. The taste is fresh, salty, pungent, and slightly flowery-lemony. In fact, they taste a bit like nasturtium buds, which make a good substitute.
The most famous dish featuring capers? Veal piccata. The best-named? Swordfish a la Fauxvençal.
This is the famous Silver Palate recipe, adapted only slightly. Serves 8-10, or more as part of a large buffet, which is my favorite way to serve it, but it's also perfect for potlucks or picnics.
12 boneless chicken breast halves, cubed
1 head garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted green olives with pimiento (small size, or chop larger ones)
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
In a large nonreactive (glass or stainless steel) bowl, combine chicken, garlic, oregano, pepper, vinegar, oil, prunes, olives, capers, and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange chicken in a single layer in shallow baking pan, and spoon marinade over it. Sprinkle with the brown sugar and pour in white wine. Bake 35-40 minutes, uncovered, basting frequently with pan juices. Place in a bowl, sprinkle with parsley. Best served at room temperature. Can be made ahead (a couple of days); this dish improves with age!
Other recipes that use capers:
Chicken piccata with fried capers, from Kalyn's Kitchen
Pork medallions with olive caper sauce, from We Are Not Martha
Light potato salad with sour cream and capers, from Whipped
Smoked salmon salad with caper vinaigrette, from Life's Ambrosia
Spaghetti with feta and capers, from Healthy Delicious