Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Capers & Caper Berries—Do You Really Know What They Are?

                                          Capers & caper berries come from the same plant

Living in California and a frequent traveler to Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece, France and Spain, I find capers as an ingredient on menus at all of these locations.  Love veal piccata?   Capers are a critical ingredient to its lemony sauce.  Lox and bagels?  Don’t even think of serving them without capers.   Julia Child’s epiphany, sole meunière?  Not possible without capers.  A Greek salad?   One without capers isn’t Greek at all.   Many of us cook with capers (and some with caper berries), however, do you know what they really are?  And, do you know the difference?


                                  Caper plants grow wild throughout the Mediterranean

Let’s start with the basics.  Capers and caper berries both come from a caper bush plant.  These 3-4 foot tall bushes (with a width of 5-7 feet) grow wild in the Mediterranean landscape.   In many ways these plants are like a weed, popping up everywhere, even in the most inhospitable of conditions…. thriving in the most arid and hottest of locations without any type of care.   Caper plants, for example, love the cracks and crevices of centuries-old stone walls from where they often cascade down several feet, growing seemingly out of no where.  They flourish often where nothing else will grow. 

Capers are the unopened, unripened, buds of a caper bush.   The tiniest of these unopened buds (about the size of a peppercorn) are the most prized capers as they have a better flavor and a more delicate texture than the larger ones.  These baby capers are called “non pareil,” which in French translates to “has no equal.”  Capers come in several sizes (the largest ones are 2-3 times the size of non pareil).  The larger the caper, the more acidic and the less expensive.

            When the caper flower falls off it is replaced by a fruit which is the actual caper berry

When the immature caper bud is not picked, it eventually develops into a beautiful flower.  Later in the season, the flower falls off and is replaced by a fruit.   This fruit is the caperberry.  The oblong shaped berry, about the size of an olive, is not quite as intense in its taste as its caper relative, but it has a milder, similar flavor profile.

       This sunning starter in Croatia featured capers, caper berries & pickled caper leaves

Capers and caperberries add a brilliant burst of flavor to many dishes.  The two can be used in the same dish, or perhaps the caper utilized in the recipe and the caperberry used as a garnish? (This is especially nice if the berry is cut open so that diners can see its inside, and the berry’s stem is left intact for some showmanship in plating).   This also creates a perfect opportunity for the host and hostess to explain the difference between these two delicious food products.



Friday, February 17, 2023

A Winning Warm Winter Salad


Ready for a different kind of salad?   I’ve got just the recipe.  It’s not only over-the-moon delicious, but it’s healthy and beautiful.  The salad is made from small green French lentils, known for having the best texture and flavor of all lentil varieties (and they keep their shape during cooking, unlike other lentils that basically turn to mush).  Most up-market grocery stores carry them, but Amazon can have them on your door-step in a matter of days if you can’t find them locally.

                          Only lentils grown in Le Puy's volcanic soil can be called Le Puy.

Green lentils are from France's central Auvergne region, specifically from the village of Le Puy.  They are registered by the French government as their own special appellation because of their unique qualities.  Grown in the center of France’s volcanic soil, these small green lentils have a slightly different flavor profile due to the earth in which they’re grown.  Some say their flavor is more earthy, but I think Le Puy lentils are more nutty and peppery.

One of my most treasured recipes of all time is from Green’s Cookbook (Batnam Books, published 1987).  Those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area well know the ethereal Green’s restaurant, one of the first vegetarian-only restaurants in San Francisco.  Established in 1979, Green’s is still going strong.   Debra Madison, Green’s owner & chef, really knocks-it-out-of-the-park with her warm lentil salad.  Infused with intoxicating aromas of mint, parsley, cilantro and thyme, along with roasted red peppers, feta and an seductive lemon vinaigrette containing smoky paprika and a hint of cayenne, this dish is both stunning in presentation and fabulous for your taste buds.

If you don’t have the cookbook, the LA Times has published the recipe.  This dish perfect for a pot-luck (but you should consider making a double recipe as there won’t be any leftovers to take home).   I often add toasted walnuts & mix in arugula just before serving. 


Bon appetit!





Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Comparing Two of Italy’s Best Cheeses


Northern Italy is a treasure trove for cheeses.  Two of the best known, Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Pedano, appear to be almost identical.  Looking at two wheels of these drum-shaped cheeses they appear nearly identical with the exception of the specific writing on their exteriors.   If you cut them open, to the novice eye their grainy, crystalline texture in the same color palate look quite similar.   But, these two cheeses, both produced from cow milk, are quite different because of the specific areas in which they are produced.  Let me explain.

Like wine grapes, the milk of cows is very much influenced by the terroir in which the cows graze.  While both of the cheeses come from Northern Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from a small area outside the city of Parma.   North of Parma is the fertile Po River Valley, the home of Grana Pedano.  These two districts provide different pastures with different soils and weather.  Their respective terroirs are reflected in the two cheese differences with slightly different flavor profiles.   Parmigiano-Reggiano has a stronger, more complex, saltier and nuttier profile than the less intense Grana Pedano.


In addition to terroir differences, there are other disparities between these two cheeses.  First, Grana Pedano is made entirely of skim milk, while Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from a combination of regular & skim milk.  The heightened fat content of Parmigiano-Reggiano accounts for part of its richer, more butter-like  taste.    


Another difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Pedano is due to their distinctive aging rules.   By law, Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged a longer period, thus accounting for its higher price.   This prolonged aging period accounts for Parmigiano Reggiano’s deeper, more complex flavors in comparison to Grana Pedano.   That being said, Grana Pedano costs significantly less reflecting its shorter again period.


Last, but not least, the cows in the area of Parma by law have a strictly controlled diet of grass & hay only.   In the Po River Valley area, the laws for Grana Pedano allow the addition of silage (fermented foliage)  to the cow’s diet.  This accounts for another difference between the two cheeses.


While both of these formaggi are wonderful in their own right, they are unique.  Why not try a Valentine’s Day comparison of the two and see if you have a favorite?