Monday, September 7, 2009

Caper Pesto

Notice the vines for Malvasia in the foreground and Caper stumps behind them. If you go to the Salumeria to buy Capers in salt, it is very likely that they came from Salina.

There are variations of this for every day of the year. I will give you the basic idea and you can make variations till the cows come home.
Pesto made with basil, in general has a basic recipe that is used in Liguria and is regularly published in cookbooks. In reality, the cook in Italy has a basic idea of the texture in mind, and they throw the ingredients together till it looks right and taste it. Then add things till it tastes right.
When I was in Malfa two years ago, I bought a small bottle of caper pesto and brought it home with me to use with pasta when the memory of Malfa was fading.
I still have the little bottle with its list of ingredients on it, but I hesitate to just imitate it here. I will give you my interpretation.
When you are on Salina, you will see peoples' yards with nice green grass and these ugly black-brown lumps sticking up in them. They were very knobby and gnarled. I had no idea what they were. It turns out that they were the stumps of caper bushes, generations old. Of course the bushes just grow like a sub-shrub with a white and pink flower. But, if you need to get capers for your own use, it is easy to just cut the caper back and allow it to come back up on an ever thickening stump. No need to forage. They have been "Pollarding" trees in big European cities for a couple of centuries at least. This is just a caper version.

Rinse and soak about half a cup of capers preserved in salt in cold water for at least a couple of hours, changing the water periodically. Do soak as long as you have time for as you will have trouble judging how much salt to use. Squeeze to dry slightly. You can use the capers from a bottle, but taste them first. They will have a different flavor, and may have vinegar. You could use this and add sugar which would be a bit sweet and sour. This is a well loved flavor in Italy, but it may not go well in some of the dishes you plan to use this with....Agro-Dolce.

Halve a couple of ripe but still firm tomatoes, and using your finger, remove all the seeds. Sprinkle the cut sides with salt(another reason to be wary of salt) and lay on a rack or paper towel, cut side down to drain for about an hour. Squeeze to remove left-over moisture and salt. Chop coarsely.

Crush your choice of olives with the side of a knife and remove the pits. Use green, black or a mix. I would not use wine or oil cured olives for this. Those are the terribly wrinkled ones. However I have seen versions of this recipe with oil cured olives...this would not be good for me however.

Peel and mince two medium garlic cloves very finely. If you do not like the sharpness of fresh garlic, sweat them in plenty of olive oil just till they soften on low temperature. Do not let them color. You can also put a few whole garlic cloves in a saucepan with oil, salt, pepper and a sprig of rosemary. Place on low heat and turn regularly till they become a warm brown and are very soft and wrinkly like a big plumped raisin.

Roast in the oven, or in a pan, about 1/4 cup of Pignola nuts or blanched slivered almonds.

OPTIONAL: thin slice a couple of scallions or mince a small handful of chives.
OPTIONAL: Add an anchovy fillet or two(another source of salt)

In a mortar and pestle, or if you are a wimp(like me) in a food processor:

Drop in the capers, garlic, olives, onion, tomatoes 1/4 cup parsley and nuts.

Pulse a few times. Everything should come out in a uniform texture. It should be about the size of baby peas.


about half a cup of EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL and pulse again. It should come together like a paste, but there should be a distinctive coarse texture where the pieces are still recognizable. Stir in 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan. Add as much more oil as necessary to get the correct texture.

Now you can check the seasoning. There were a lot of salt sources here. Olives, tomatoes, capers all had salt in them. When you are unsure, do not add salt till just before you serve it. The salt can still come out of the capers into the pesto while it is in storage.

Add more oil if necessary to make it a bit more fluid and easy to mix into pasta or smear over other things.


Use tomatoes that you have roasted in the oven, drizzled with oil for about two hours minimum, at 250 degrees.

Add a small Eggplant cut in chunks and roasted similarly.

Add Oregano and/or basil.

Mix into bean paste(post elsewhere) or Bean and tuna paste.

Toss into pasta.

Smear over plain fish half way through baking.

Toss with re hydrated baked or simmered Bacala(another salt source).

Add lemon juice and/or grated zest.

Smear over just roasted vegetable halves, Eggplant, Peppers, Tomatoes, Potatoes.

Coarsely mash some into new potatoes with extra oil. Especially good if you are serving fish with it. Potato and capers are a well known combination in the Aeolian islands, even though my great grandmother thought they were only fit for pigs.

Smear on grilled or toasted bread or garlic bread.

Mix it into cream cheese and stuff celery or Endive leaves.

Stir some into drained ricotta cheese and use it for a stuffing in deep fried squash, pumpkin or zucchini blossoms.
To drain the cheese, place a coffee filter into a mesh strainer and pour in the ricotta. Let drain into a deep bowl over night. You could use a double layer of cheesecloth as well.(possibly even paper towels)
You could conceivably put a layer of this stuffing between two slices of eggplant or zucchini slices then dip in batter together and deep fry...pray.

Today I saw a variation that was a mix of several anchovy fillets, 1/4 cup of rinsed drained capers, a handful of parsley, a half cup of oil cured olives(or your choice) all minced together, then wet with olive oil and Parmesan or Pecorino Romano mixed in. This was mixed with floured and fried veggies then baked at 350 till hot through.

ETC. Etc. etc.

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