Currently I work at a restaurant where we are not allowed to use any ingredients that do not grow within 300 miles of Minnesota. Small exceptions are made for things like salt, if there is some sort of natural disaster that destroys produce, or if the local purveyors just can’t seem to get it right. This year the local fennel was absolute crap (it was all “bolted”-starting it’s reproductive cycle) which means that the fennel grows a bit longer and stringy and the core is huge inside which makes it have a woody texture when cooked. Scarlet turnips ended up being garbage from a local amish purveyor as well, for some reason even when cooked, they were woody and stringy inside. When the goal of the turnips is to change them into a soup that will be sold at 12$ for a 4oz ladle, the turnips must be absolutely perfect.
In all reality though, the concept of only using indigenous products was really a shock when I was first introduced to it. Couple this with the fact that I am given the leeway to use these ingredients in any way I please, and you really create a monster. The creative freedom was a gift, but one that came with a caveat. I am a bit obsessed with Italian food, but I was stripped of all of the imported toys and secret weapons I had relied on and studied. Parmigiano Reggiano, Arborio rice, salt water fish, shellfish like mussels, clams, and my beloved whelks. Pasta would be a no-no too, any sort of noodle or gnocchi I wanted to make would have to be hand made.
It took some time and plenty of occasions with me in the cooler tapping on my head saying: “Think, think, think” like Winnie the Pooh. Eventually I started to see things through my new lens though, and now it is not as difficult. The method for wild capers I’m going to share with you here is a great example of ingredient improvisation, although I definitely wasn’t the first to do it.
Most of the time if you are talking about making capers yourself, from my experience chefs will bring up nasturtium capers, where the unopened flower buds of the plant are preserved with salt, brined or pickled. This spring, when I was walking around looking at the spring growth, I started to notice other things that looked like capers. I thought it might be cool to create them out of many different plants, and I had a paradigm shift that went something like this:
“Capers don’t have to be from a particular Mediterranean vine. A caper can be the unopened flower bud of many different plants.”
After that I started going out and picking all the tiny little flower buds I could find. I put up about a quart of each in salt/vinegar brines, and waited a couple months. Stopping to pick the buds doesn’t take a while, but it is important to be careful and only pick the most tiny, hard, immature buds. If the buds are even slightly opened they may start to open up during the salting/brining, and they don’t look or taste nearly as good. I ate little amounts of each variety during their maturation process, and definitely noticed that it takes a while for each of the capers to mellow in flavor. I thought most of them were good to go after about 4 months or more. I have made and enjoyed capers from the following plants so far:
- Chive Blossom
The really fun part about the wild capes was that they retain a bit of their individual flavors after curing, so chive capers are still a bit onion-y and dandelions a little bitter/astringent. Young capers made day lily buds are vegetal, and mild. Nasturtium capers will have a bit of mustard/pepper flavor.
Making the capers at home is very simple, gathering them at the perfect stage of growth is the tricky part. If you have access to a small garden with a couple herbs and flowers, its quite easy.
Wild Caper Brine
Makes 2 cups of vinegar brine, enough to cover 4 packed pint jars full of young flower buds
Alternately, you may can these using a water bath method, which will result in softer capers, just process half pint jars in a water bath canner for 10 minutes.
This is a bare bones recipe, I always like to add some different flavoring elements, a clove or two of garlic, lemon or citrus peel, and herbs like tarragon or basil are great. Be creative!
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup champagne vinegar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Heat together the water, vinegar and salt together until the salt is dissolved, then cool.
- Now take your flower buds and fill half pint canning jars with them. Leave about 1/2 inch headspace in each jar.
- Press the buds down to decrease air pockets, which will allow you to fit more in each jar.
- When you have pressed the buds down, fill the jars with the vinegar brine, jostling them around with a toothpick to remove air pockets, then seal, refrigerate, and wait a couple months before enjoying.
Another method is to simply pour boiling vinegar brine into the jars, filling the jars up to the brim. When the jars are completely filled, put on the covers and then immediately turn the jars upside down. When the jars are completely cooled, you will find they have formed hermetic seals. The ph in this recipe is so ridiculously low that there is no reason to worry about safety.