Capers Confound A Cautious Cook


December 01, 1991|By ROB KASPER

I am not confident in the company of capers. I have a jar of the pickled green flower buds lurking somewhere in the fridge. Most folks do. But I am not sure when to break it out.

Capers remind me of semicolons. I know it is permissible to sprinkle a few around, but I worry about how much is appropriate. If you flaunt them, people think you are putting on airs.

And just as the semicolon packs more authority than a comma but less than a period, so a caper delivers more wallop than parsley but less clout than garlic. I use both sparingly.

The last time I cracked open the jar of capers was when I tossed a few on some grilled eggplant. Mine was not a confident toss. Rather than one of those sweeping devil-may-care flicks of the hand that chefs use when they toss condiments on their cuisine, mine was the halting, insecure gesture of a novice afraid he was going to screw something up.

The cookbook recipe I was following, gave me little help. It simply said "sprinkle with capers," dodging all the worrisome questions of whether it was supposed to be a light or heavy sprinkle. And where exactly the sprinkles were supposed to land?

So in my halting way I sent some capers cascading down on a slice of grilled eggplant. They made a substantial improvement in the taste of the eggplant. The experts say capers have a "goaty" flavor. I'll just say they tasted good on eggplant.

Capers would not win a condiment beauty contest. They look weird. Since they are already shriveled and swimming in salted wine vinegar when I buy them, I am never sure when they go bad.

But I have adjusted to their looks. They remind me of some avid golfers who have been out in the sun too long. They are in much better shape than their skin leads you to believe.

The capers I use were non-pareilles, which I am told, are the smallest of the caper clan and therefore the best. They came from Spain and were a foreign color, unconventional green. And any time I eat off-color food, I naturally wonder about its heritage.

I once got smack-dab in the middle of a big neighborhood tussle over the origin of the condiment.

Two caper combatants, who shall be called Claudia and Sallye, confronted me one summer day. "Hey," one of them said. "Where do capers come from? She says it is the bud nasturtium plant and I say she is wrong."

The two women were friends, but I could see right away that this was a serious dispute. Your average citizen might shy away from such an emotion-laden argument, but not me.

I had been trained in handling such disputes. I had once answered phones in a newspaper sports department.

People who answer phones in a newspaper sports department are accustomed to landing right in the middle of a dispute, usually one in which the disputants are sitting in a tavern.

The routine goes something like this. You answer the phone and a voice hollers at you: "Oklahoma won the 1986 Oklahoma-Nebraska game right!" You say, "That's right, Oklahoma won."

Then the hollerer says, "Tell that to my buddy." When the second guy picks up the phone, you tell him, "Nebraska won." Then you hang up.

The idea is to tell the arguers what they want to hear. And to make sure they don't ever call you again.

That is how I handled the neighborhood caper controversy. I told both combatants that they were both right. According to one source book I found, capers are pickled flowered buds of any of 150 species of plant, including nasturtiums.

As sometimes happens when you try to please both sides in a dispute, both sides said I was full of stuff. They doubted my authority. The fight over the origin of capers lived on.

And so recently when two other women started talking about where capers came from, I trembled. I had witnessed the emotional havoc that those little green balls can reek.

It turned out that a true caper is the pickled flower bud of a spiny shrub native to southern Europe and North Africa. The larger buds, including those from nasturtiums, are sometimes substituted. But they are not, according to the authorities on shriveled stuff, true capers.

Which meant that one of the women, Sallye or Claudia, was right. I can't remember who held which position in the argument.

Not that it matters now. The two women rarely speak to each other. Shortly after the caper dispute, one of the women moved out of town. She said it was a business move, but I have my doubts.

No one remembers who was right about capers; but Sallye doesn't live here anymore.

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