Chef John Regefalk Discovers Rome's Caper Bounty

Written by Katie Parla on November 14, 2011

Today’s post comes from Chef John Regefalk, former Noma trainee and current sous chef at Metamorfosi in Rome. His experience with capers goes way back and in this post, he explores a rather revolutionary approach to preparing the plant, a manner that makes use of it in a way that could be easily replicated in households all over Rome.

“I love capers, I really do. When I was a kid I thought capers were the American football-shaped berries attached to a long stem and found in a glass jar. When I became a bit older and took my first job in a restaurant in Sweden, I thought capers were the tiny round greyish-green buds sold in a vinegary brine. Not knowing any better, I liked them a lot. Then I came to Italy and I was introduced to the real thing: brighter green flower buds conserved in coarse salt. No additives. Here in Italy you will find the buds picked in different moments of maturity, which results in variations in size and softness.

Unlike most, I prefer the bigger, softer, more mature flower buds to the smaller, firmer, younger ones, which are normally considered much more precious. What I like is the decreased acidity and flowery punch of the more mature beginning flower.

Well, this is old news. Now I have a new darling: caper leaves. Katie is to blame for this new obsession. She planted the idea in my head after she returned from Cyprus and told me of a local delicacy.

As she mentioned last week in her post Foraging For Food in Rome, the whole caper plant is edible. Indeed, capers have been used as food and medicine in the Mediterranean for thousands of years; they are especially appreciated for their particular flavor. The leaves lean towards a grassy, nutty, buttery flavor whereas the flower buds are more (quite obviously) floral and herbal.

Capers develop their unique flavor in brine, where mustard oil breaks down into the characteristic, pungent caper flavor. Picked straight off the bush, any part of the plant tastes really nasty.

There are lots of “Cappari Spinosa”, caper plants around Rome. For those of you who are not familiar with them, I’m talking about an evergreen spiny shrub with a thick cluster of long branches where its round leaves are attached. To find one, you’ll want to look in the most unlikely places, places where you didn’t think anything could grow. But the caper plant is an extremely fit survivor that can persist in poor soils with no nutrients. You’re likely to find it growing on rocks, in crevices, attached high up on brick walls or other stony areas.

Knowing that Rome is full of Capparis Spinosa and that the flower bud season is over led me to pick and pickle my first caper leaves. They turned out really well and are perfect to use in salads, serve with meat, or to flavor soups. This is how I did it:

Step one is to get rid of the seriously smelly and bitter mustard oils that the caper plant contains. I did this by soaking the leaves in normal drinking water in a big glass jar with a loosely fitted lid on top. I left the leaves at room temperature, changing the water once a day for a week. The first day or two, not much happens: it seems the leaves thought all that water was just really heavy rainfall!

After a couple of days, though, I started to smell that things were happening. Every time I’d lift that lid I would get a quite unpleasantly perfumed surprise, which was good; it told me the leaves were releasing their smelly substances. The leaves also changed color and developed white-yellow spots. This is normal.

Once purged in the water bath it’s time to pickle. Here you can choose two methods:

Either make a vinegar brine, slightly acidic and salty, OR let the caper leaves create their own acidity through lacto-fermentation, which is the more hardcore way to go.

The vinegar brine goes something like this:

250 g water

250 g white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon of coarse salt

Bring the ingredients to a boil. Place the rinsed leaves in a glass jar and pour the hot brine over them. Put a lid on the jar and let cool.

Store in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks before using.

The Lacto-fermented caper leaves are done this way:

500 g water

2 tablespoons of coarse salt

Bring to a boil and then let cool. Place the rinsed leaves in a glass jar and pour the brine over them. Let stand in a warm place in your kitchen for at least 2-3 days. Taste daily to see when the flavor and acidity is just right for you. They tend to get more tangy and saltier the longer they stand. Once they are perfect, put the whole jar in the fridge. Instead of leaving the leaves in the brine, I drained them and I repacked them in coarse salt in a jar kept in the fridge. The ones layered with salt needs a bit longer soaking in fresh water before use.

Good luck!”

You can visit John’s blog here.

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