When I was a kid, whenever my parents would have company my mom would serve caponata on crackers. I couldn’t get enough of the classic “umami bomb”—tangy with tomatoes, mellowed with eggplant, sweet with onions, yet surprisingly briny, as it turned out, from capers! (Here’s a really great caponata recipe to make at home.)
Back then it didn’t occur to me to ask, “what are capers?” All I saw were little green peppercorn-like thingies that had a soft bite and tasted a bit like olives. When I started cooking with Mom, she’d have me sprinkle capers on salmon. But it wasn’t until my own kids asked me to make pasta with puttanesca sauce, just like the kids in A Series of Unfortunate Events, that I decided to find out exactly what capers are.
What Are Capers?
Capers are immature flower buds from the Capparis spinosa (aka the “caper bush”), which grow all over the Mediterranean, just like olives do. Caper buds are picked before they can bloom into flowers. Then they’re pickled in vinegar or preserved in salt because eaten freshly picked, they’d taste no better than a freshly picked olive, which is to say, not so good. The smaller the caper, the earlier it was picked. Larger capers taste more flavorful, but their texture is a bit loose, owing to the fact that they have a tiny little flower inside them that was almost ready to burst forth.
When Should You Use Them?
Capers add a bright, briny burst of flavor to savory dishes. Like I said, caponata is one of my favorites. These pickled flower buds also taste great with smoked salmon (we all know bagels and lox, right?). But if you want to know the food that really sings when you add capers, it’s chicken piccata, where it gets even brighter from its pairing with lemon juice but then mellows out with the addition of butter and chicken stock. Here’s one of our favorite recipes for chicken piccata. It doesn’t say to do this, but my advice is to sprinkle it with another spoonful of capers right before you serve it.
But don’t stop with the classics! You can try this yummy Mediterranean chicken skillet. It’s a great introduction to this salty ingredient. Capers also work well in these smoked salmon bites. If you think of capers as a bit like an olive, you’ll start to find great places to add them to your meals.
Pick Your Piccata Recipe!
My husband loves chicken piccata. I tried it in a puff pastry pocket with a bit of cream cheese; it tasted sensational. When he took leftovers to work, everyone asked what smelled so great. —Arlene Erlbach, Morton Grove, Illinois
Easy chicken recipes are my go-to dinner choice. My chicken piccata pasta dish is ready to serve in a half hour. It takes just a few minutes in the oven to bake to tender perfection. —Hannah Williams, Malibu, California
Here's a dish that's light and summery but still filling. My kids love all the veggies...for real! If you like a lot of lemon, stir in an extra splash of lemon juice just before serving. —Shannon Humphrey, Hampton, Virginia
I couldn’t say who loves this recipe best, because it gets raves every time I serve it! Occasionally I even get a phone call or email from a friend requesting the recipe, and it's certainly a favorite for my grown children and 15 grandchildren. —Maryalice Wood, Langley, British Columbia
Years ago, I fell hard for a lemony Greek soup at Panera Bread. It was just a special back then, but I re-created it at home so we could eat it whenever a craving hit! —Kristin Cherry, Bothell, Washington
Laced with lemon and simmered in white wine, this stovetop entree is super easy and elegant. Just add a side of veggies and bread to make it into a wonderful meal. —Cynthia Heil, Augusta, Georgia
This easy and attractive meal is bound to become a staple with your family. It's made with everyday ingredients, there's nothing complicated or fancy about this delicious recipe. —Elizabeth Hokanson, Arborg, Manitoba
My husband and our sons like to have meat with their meals, but I prefer more veggies. This combo with rotini pasta is colorful and healthy, and it keeps everyone happy. —Anna-Marie Williams, League City, Texas
While living in California, I enjoyed a delicious chicken-lemon soup at a local restaurant. When I returned to Texas, I experimented with many versions before landing on this one. —Brenda Tollett, San Antonio, Texas
Garlic, oregano and lemon juice give spark to this memorable main dish. It's easy to fix—just brown the chicken in a skillet, then let the slow cooker do the work. I like to serve this dish to company. —Walter Powell, Wilmington, Delaware
Everyone loves chicken salad, but this mayo-free version always stands out. Cooking the chicken in the crockpot gives it so much more flavor! For parties and showers, you can serve it on croissants or in lettuce cups. —Andria Lint, Flowery Branch, Georgia
I like the challenge of inventing recipes with ingredients I have on hand. This easy-peasy meal fits the bill. —Colleen Doucette, Truro, Nova Scotia
Once you've tried this tangy, yet delicate lemon chicken piccata, you won't hesitate to make it for company. Seasoned with parmesan and parsley, the chicken cooks up golden brown, then is drizzled with a light lemon sauce. —Susan Pursell, Fountain Valley, California
I needed an easy way to prepare my family's favorite meal, lemon chicken, and this recipe is it! My entire family loves this rich slow-cooker dish, and everyone who eats it asks for the recipe—it's a keeper. I serve the chicken over a bed of rice or couscous and spoon some of the creamy sauce over the top.—Nan Slaughter, Sammamish, Washington
While visiting our daughters in Ohio, we celebrated by cooking a wonderful Lebanese dinner. I showed my daughters how to bake chicken with garlic roasted potatoes. We finished with our homemade baklava. —Shirley Glaab, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
My grandmother made chicken wings and served them over rice. To speed things up, I cook lemony chicken breasts and serve them over capellini pasta. —Aileen Rivera, Bronx, New York
This is my go-to soup when I'm under the weather. It always makes me feel better. This filling dish is also delicious for lunch or dinner, even when you're feeling great. —Angie Pitts, Charleston, South Carolina
This chicken dish makes a nice change of pace for my husband and me when our three boys stay with their grandparents. —Mary Linda King, Florence, South Carolina