Sunday, February 9, 2003

Serve it this week: Capers

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

History: Capers are the pickled, unopened flower buds of a trailing shrub native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Capers were probably first used by the Greeks, who are credited with introducing them to France about 600 B.C. The Romans also used capers in their cooking. "Since antiquity, (capers) have been giving a lift to foods otherwise insipid,'' writes Waverly Root in Food (Smithmark; $24.98).

Buy: Capers are available pickled in vinegar brine and packed in salt. Their size ranges from the tiny non-pareil French variety (considered the best) to the larger Italian capers, which can be the size of a fingertip. Even larger are the stem-on caper berries, about the size of a small cocktail olive, from Spain. Capers are usually found with pickles at most supermarkets.

Store: Keep unopened jarred capers in cool, dark place. After opening, store them in the refrigerator. Once opened, capers should keep up to a year.

Prepare: Always wash capers thoroughly before using to remove traces of vinegar or salt. Capers lend their pungent flavor to cooked sauces and condiments, to classic dishes such as veal piccata, and also as a garnish for meat and vegetables. The closest substitute to capers would be chopped gherkin pickles.

Good for you: Although capers are high in sodium (150 to 170 milligrams per tablespoon), their pungent flavor can punch up otherwise bland low-fat dishes. Those on a sodium-restricted diet should skip the capers, or drain and rinse them well before using.

Veal or Chicken Piccata
• 1 pound veal scaloppine or skinless, boneless chicken breast, sliced and pounded to about 1/4-inch thick.
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 + 4 tablespoons butter
• 1/4 cup dry white wine
• 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
• 2 tablespoons small capers, washed and drained
• 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat oven to lowest setting. Season veal or chicken to taste with salt and pepper. Dredge veal or chicken in flour and shake off excess. Set aside.

In a large skillet over high heat, heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Cooking in small batches, brown veal or chicken quickly on both sides until cooked through. (Veal will take about 30 to 60 seconds to a side; chicken will take longer.) Cook remaining veal or chicken and place on an oven proof platter. Cover with foil and put in oven to keep warm.

Pour off excess fat from skillet and return to high heat. Add wine and lemon juice to pan and bring to a boil, scraping up brown bits with a wooden spoon. Add capers and reduce heat. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 5 minutes.

Turn off heat and quickly whisk in remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper and add chopped parsley. Spoon sauce over warm chicken or veal and serve. Makes 4 servings.

- Adapted from Joy of Cooking (Scribner; $30)

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Serve it this week: Capers