What are Capers? A staple in Italian Cooking

capers and leaves

Caper Berry Plant

what-are-capers_thumb

This past weekend at a seminar I found myself trying to explain what exactly is a caper.  These little pungent Mediteranean capers come from the bud of blossoming bushes.  I actually had the pleasure of seeing caper bushes.  It was many years ago when  my brother and I visited our grandparents at their home town on the island of Ischia. They took us for a leisurely walk through town and we visited the Castello Aragonese, a medieval castle built on volcanic rock. As we walked up to the castle, clinging to the cracked walls and cliffs were these unusual and attractive ornamental shrubs.  They were thriving in the sunny hot dry climate of Ischia. As you can see from the picture the castle is nestled on volcanic rock in the middle of the sea. So these caper shrubs are evidently salt tolerant as well. My Nonno (grandfather) pointed out the capers on the shrubs. The bushy plant had a thick cluster of thorny branches and fleshy, egg shaped leaves. They were as high as five feet in some places, but most were sprawled out over rocks and soil.

castel in ischia

Castelo Aragonese – A medieval castle on volcanic rock off the island of Ischia in Naples, Italy

Nonno explained that from April to June, the caper shrub’s tiny buds flower into large, sweet-scented, pink blooms clustered with long, violet stamens. The plants harvested for capers, however, rarely blossom. Instead, workers endure hot sun, sharp thorns and rugged terrain throughout the summer to pick the precious buds as they ripen.  It was a beautiful walk as we gazed out to sea. My Nonno walked ahead explaining all the sites while my Nonna (grandmother) ambled behind slowly carrying her large purse under her arm.  Nick and I found our Italian grandparents amusing.  At one point it started sprinkling as was common in the afternoons in Ischia, a sun shower.  Nonno slowed down and turned to ask my Nonna if she was ok.  In his tongue in cheek manner he just shook his head as he found Nonna pulling out  a clear plastic rain bonnet for her head and a sweater for her shoulders out of that large white purse of hers.  My brother and I were hysterically laughing not just at my Nonna but at Nonno’s reaction.  What a special caper memory.  I think of them whenever I use capers in my cooking.

Capers are enhanced enhanced by a pickling process fundamental to their cultivation, their tart and briny flavors enrich sauces, spreads and garnishes.  Capers are a staple in the Italian kitchen. The tiny, piquant buds are enjoyed from region to region, from the north to the south.  In Sicily capers are served in caponata, a summer side dish in which their saline bite cuts through the rich taste of tender, slow-cooked eggplant.  In Naples they adorn spaghetti alla puttanesca, one of the sauces I made at the seminar where the capers are combined with tomatoes, olives and anchovies in a pasta fredda to create a light yet assertive sauce. The tangy orbs are often sprinkled over pizza, pasta, and fish dishes as a flavorful garnish, and they appear in a variety of sauces.

Most capers come from wild plants, though in Spain and Italy—the two largest producers—they are cultivated. Sicily and the Aeolian island of Salina produce the majority of Italy’s capers. The best, though, come from Pantelleria. On this tiny island, halfway to Tunisia, volcanic soil and the heat of an intense Mediterranean sun create ideal growing conditions. The berries are also picked, and both are pickled for use as a seasoning and garnish. The bud, or caper, is pickled in salt and vinegar brine, then sold in vinegar or packed in salt. The berry—the larger, plump, mature fruit of the plant—resembles a green grape with faint, white stripes and, like olives, is served in pastas, salads or even as a garnish in martinis. When choosing capers, look for dark green buds packed tightly in sea salt, because those submerged in vinegar lack the subtle, natural taste of the salted ones. The smaller buds have a more delicate flavor while the larger ones have less taste and could be frauds—sometimes the similar-looking buds of the nasturtium plant are passed off as capers. The French term nonpareil is commonly used to denote the smallest buds; surfines are the next largest. True Italian capers, though, are sorted by millimeter with mechanized screens. They range from 7 millimeters to 16 millimeters. Unfortunately in stores their size is not often marked.  Be sure to look for buds not larger than a raisin. If using salted capers, soak them for five to ten minutes and drain to remove excess salt. Those in vinegar only require rinsing.

“All About Pasta”

 "All About Pasta"

Featuring:

 825 MAIN Marinara and Pizza Margherita Sauces from Poughkeepsie, NY

Delverde Pasta  from Abruzzo region –  pure waters of the Verde river –  Majella National Park on the Adriatic side. Bronze die cut pasta. This is not an artisanal pasta although it is bronze cut.  The cost is less compared to an artisanal bronze cut pasta.  But compared to the Teflon cut pastas Delverede Pasta is more expensive.  Bronze cut pastas are generally more expensive because of the labor costs to make it.  Cooking time 11 minutes.

Pastificio Artigiano Cav. Giuseppe Cocco  Artisanal bronze cut pasta.  All the ingredients in Giuseppe Cocco’s pasta  are genuine. Made in Rara S. Martino, Abruzzi, Italy.   The pasta is characterized by its coarse appearance, typical of bronze die extrusion, and when cooked has a firm and elastic consistency, with excellent resilience. They also use the water from the Verde River. These fully manual and traditional methods require more time and space; hence the small production quantity. The traditional pasta taste and flavor are guaranteed. More labor intensive pasta requires a higher price point. Cooking time 18 minutes.

Pastifficio Riscossa – made in Bari, Italy.  Teflon cut pasta. Bright yellow smooth to the touch pasta.  Requires less drying time after it is made, therefore companies are able to mass produce much more quickly.  Mass production less labor intensive yields are less expensive product.  Teflon cut pasta is much cheaper than bronze cut pasta.

La Bella Pasta  from Kingston, NY.  Fresh pasta made from semolina flour and eggs. Much more delicate pasta requires less cooking time.  Only 2-4 minutes.

1. How to eat spaghetti?

  1. Don’t cut it with knife and fork
  2. Don’t slurp it
  3. Don’t twirl it so there is so much on the fork that it doesn’t fit in mouth
  4. Pick up a few strands and twirl with the fork resting on the side of a pasta bowl with a rim.

Or:  if you have a flat plate or a deep bowl with no sides use a spoon and twirl the spaghetti inside the spoon picking up just a few strands of spaghetti

2.      What types of pasta are there?

                a.  Dried pasta

  1. Teflon cut – smooth and shiny and the color is amber  because it is a quicker drying time at higher temperatures.  All American made pasta is Teflon cut.  Sauce tends to slide off of shiny smooth pasta.
  2. Bronze cut  (cut refers to the die or mold) – rougher and more porous,  The color is much lighter yielding a pale yellow color. It is cooked at low temperature and longer drying time which maintains the aroma and flavor of the wheat.   The low temperature also maintains the wheat nutritional value as well as the wheat protein. Bronze cut pasta allows the sauce to cling to it.

   b. Fresh pasta – has a delicate texture.  Most of the fresh pastas are made with eggs.  It requires half the time of dry pasta.  Its delicate texture is best with light butter sauces and herbs or a light tomato sauce.  While dry pasta can handle a heartier sauce or put into soups and easier baked.

 3. What are the ingredients?     

a. dry pasta is made of durum wheat  ( semolina durum) salt and water.  The most important quality of durum wheat is that it contains more protein than common wheat.  It is important to produce high quality pasta – a pasta that remains firm or al dente when cooked.  The grinding of durum wheat produces a coarse flour called semolina.  1967 a law was passed in Italy that required only durum wheat to be used in making all dried pasta.  Dry pasta is prevalent in southern Italy because of the climate.  The mild sea breeze  and hot winds from the Vesuvious  was perfect for drying the pasta without getting moldy. Durum wheat is grown in many regions of the world ..including Mediterranean countries, north America, Russia and Argentina.  In Italy it grows mostly in the southern regions – mostly notably in Puglia which produces the finest pasta in the world.

b. fresh pasta is made of from eggs and “00” high-gluten flour.  Machine  rolled and hand cut is better because sauce sticks better  and is absorbed by the pasta to the hand cut pasta versus the machine cut.  Some fresh cut pasta is also made without eggs.

 4. How to cook Pasta?

1 gallon of water per pound of pasta. Put on high heat.  Once torolling boil add 2 tablespoons of sea salt. Add pasta all at once.  Separate pasta before it comes to a boil again with a fork.  Keep it moving so it doesn’t stick. Test it 3 minutes after it comes back to a boil for fresh pasta and after 5 minutes for dry pasta. Test it if it is to your liking.  It should be just slightly hard to the teeth – “al dente”.  Strain quickly in a colander and put in bowl…without loosing all the water.  Not too dry.  Better yet use fork or tongs and pull out of water.  Or use a strainer that is part of a spaghetti pot.

After cooking a good pasta should look moist not gummy.  Cooking in too little water makes a gummy pasta.

Transfer pasta to a bowl quickly and add some sauce stir coating, all the pasta. Don’t douse the pasta.  Just moisten with the sauce and then a ladle on top for presentation.

 5. How to serve it. 

      Italians serve it as a 2 oz portion while Americans serve it as a 4 oz portion.  Italians is served as a first course while Americans serve it as a main course.  Italians eat it everyday sometimes twice a day.

7. The Pasta War  –

     Controversy began in 1975 between the USA and European Econimic Community  EEC subsidized  exports of pasta to get the price down so it can compete with American pasta companies.  Because Durum wheat was so much higher priced than the regular flour American were using to make pasta .  High tariffs were issued making the Italian pasta more expensive.  But then in turn the Europeans issued high tariffs on American lemons and walnuts.  But EEC continues to subsidize exported pasta to make it more affordable.

8. “Fare la Scarpetta” 

       Fare la scarpetta is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

 

 

Please enjoys today’s 825 MAIN Sauces with the pasta and be sure to “Fare la Scarpetta”!

Olive Oil Terminology Seminar Feb 1st at Adams Fairacre Farms in Wappingers, NY

olive oil seminarWhat to look for and avoid when buying olive oil

Check that the following may be included on the label:

       Cold – pressed – A chemical-free process using only pressure, cold pressing produces a higher quality of olive oil which is naturally lower in acidity. The best oils are cold pressed. The oil is obtained through pressing and grinding the olives using heavy granite millstones or modern stainless steel presses. Cold pressed oils retain all of their flavor, aroma, and nutritional value.

  • Date of Harvest –  the benefits of olive oil come mainly from the polyphenols and the content of polyphenols is dependent on a few factors and one of them is when the olives are harvested. Early harvest when the olives are partially green results in an olive oil that has a higher polyphenol content, and that also means a longer shelf life. These olive oils have a more herby and bitter taste. Olive oil from late harvest (mature olives) has a more buttery taste, but less polyphenols (antioxidants) and shorter shelf life, in other words it has a quicker loss of its nutritional benefits. So if possible pick a harvest date that that is ideally November or even late October as its harvest date.
  •  Best-Before Date (Expiration)  If the bottle does not have an expiration date do not buy it. And better yet, it should have a harvest date. The reason for this is not that olive oil will go bad in the sense that perishable foods go bad, but that it is old. In my previous post I noted that old olive oil does not taste good and it does not have the health benefits of the fresh olive oil. The older the olive oil the less polyphenols it will have. You should look for an expiration date that is about a year and a half away. If you find that, then that means it has been harvested in the previous year. Usually the expiration date is about 1 ½ -2 years after harvest date. But that does not mean that you should be using it until that date. Ideally, and if you want to replicate what was being done in the traditional Mediterranean diet, you want to consume olive oil within 1 year of it’s harvest date. In other words use olive oil of that year’s harvest. Generally though you should use an open bottle of olive oil in a short period of time.
  • First Press – First press was a former official definition for olive oil. A century ago, oil was pressed in screw or hydraulic presses. The paste was subjected to increasingly high pressures with subsequent degradation in the flavor of the oil. Today the vast majority of oil is made in continuous centrifugal presses. There is no second pressing.
  • Extra Virgin   At the head of the olive oil class sit the extra-virgins, followed closely by the virgins. The difference between two oils and where they rank in the following hierarchy may be just half a percentage point of acidity. However, that is all it takes to distinguish between a very good oil and a great oil.

These are the official IOOC definitions:

This oil is obtained only from the olive, the fruit of the olive tree, using only mechanical or other physical means in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It excludes oils obtained by the use of solvents or re-esterification methods, and those mixed with oils from other sources. It can be qualified as a natural product, and virgin olive oil can have a designation of origin when it meets the specific characteristics associated with a particular region. Virgin olive oils can have the following designations and classifications depending on their organoleptic (taste and aroma) and analytic characteristics (the degree of acidity refers to the proportion of free fatty acids, not to the taste).

  • Single-estate Origin ( Artisanal  Oil) Top quality oil from olives grown on a single individual estate or farm. The olives are usually harvested by hand and the oil is pressed and bottled on site. Estate production is generally characterized by small production, more ideal growing, harvesting and production conditions. While not better in terms of healthful qualities, estate oils do offer consumers a wider choice of complex flavors and aromas. Estate oils are among the best that are available and they are expensive. They are usually sold on site or in specialty shops and are often displayed away from bright light, which caused deterioration in the flavor and quality of the oil. (In food stores, displays of olive oil may be exposed to heat and light, but because of the quick turnover in most stores, this may not result in a significant problem with the quality. Because premium-priced oils move less quickly, it is an in issue with the most expensive oils.)
  • Accredited Certification Logos (if purchasing certified organic olive oils look for organic symbol)

Acronyms for Authenticity of Origin  –  a regulated and controlled qualification                     managed by a Council that  is responsible for controlling the characteristics, as well as the authenticity of the products protected by the denomination

A.O.C.  – France

D.O. or DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN – Spain

D.O.P. or DENOMINAZIONE d’ORIGINE PROTETTA  – Italy

 Olive Oil Councils:

COOC   The California Olive Oil Council, the regulating body that establishes standards for member producers that make olive oil in California.

IOOC   The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) determines standards for grades of olive oil for most of the world.

 


Avoid the following terms on the label:

 Refined  – Over 50% of the oil produced in the Mediterranean area is of such poor quality that it must be refined to produce an edible product. Note that no solvents have been used to extract the oil but it has been refined with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters.

  • Blended olive oil – Most supermarket brands of olive oil are blended from oil from many different varieties, regions, and even countries. (1) Because olive oil from the same grove tastes differently from year to year due to weather, to create an oil that tastes the same blenders must take oil from many sources and come up with a recipe to create the same taste. (2) Blending some oil high in polyphenols with one which does not will increase its shelf life. (3) Sometimes olive oil is blended with canola or other vegetable oils. This should be stated on the label. Illegal blending of cheaper oil can be profitable for the unscrupulous and can be difficult to detect
  • Pure Olive Oil  ,or 100% Olive Oil , or Olive Oil   A labeling that indicates only that the contents are 100% olive oil, i.e. that no other types of oil have been added; it does not indicate quality. It can be a blend of  85% refined oil and 15% virgin or extra virgin olive oil and is considered to be minimally processed.
  •  Light Olive Oil -or- Lite Olive Oil    IOOC Definition: In the U.S., flavorless and often low quality (refined) oil is sold as “lite” or “light” oil for a premium price. The “light” designation refers to flavor, not caloric content
  • §   Lampante (or virgin lampante) olive oil – Defective olive oil that is high in natural acid (3.3% or more), has poor flavor, or an unpleasant odor. It is not fit for human consumption without additional processing, after which it is known as refined oil and can be sold simply as olive oil.
  • Pomace – Pomace oil is the lowest quality of olive oil suitable for human consumption. We don’t recommend it; when it is used with food, it is generally used by manufacturers seeking the least expensive ingredients. It is best used for soap, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and oil lamps. IOOC Definition: Pomace is the ground flesh and pits after pressing. Olive-pomace oil is the oil obtained by treating olive pomace with solvents or other physical treatments, to the exclusion of oils obtained by re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds. Olive-pomace oil is the oil comprising the blend of refined olive-pomace oil and virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are. It has a free acidity of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in this standard. In no case shall this blend be called “olive oil.” Restaurants use Pomace Oil because not only is it cheap it can withstand high temperatures.

 

  • Cheap oils claiming to be extra virgin, first press, or cold press

 

Check carefully for the following:

 The Bottle:  Avoid bottles in clear glass as light can affect the oil. Bottles that are made of dark glass are better or not clear at all is even better. Do not be influenced by the shape and design of the bottle either. Many producers feel that good olive oil deserves a state of the art bottle. Sure, but those bottles and designs cost the producers a lot and as a result you are paying more for that olive oil because of the bottle and design. Having said that, some of the best olive oils come in very simple bottles. But if in a clear glass bottle make sure the expiration is far off because light will affect the color and taste of olive oil. 

  • Flavored  or Infused Olive oil

           – Flavored  with alcohol based extract. Check that extra virgin olive oil is used. Flavored is cheaper than infused.

-Infused – the herbs/fruits are crushed along with the olives much more expensive than flavored.  Again be sure to check that it is extra- virgin olive oil.

  • Unfiltered Olive Oil –  IOOC Definition: Unfiltered oil contains tiny particles of olive flesh, which leaves the oil cloudy. Olive oil aficionados claim this adds additional flavor. Unfortunately it causes a sediment to form at the bottom of the bottle over time which can become rancid, negatively impacting flavor and shelf life. Unfiltered oil should be carefully stored and used within 3 to 6 months of bottling.

 Where do Olive Oils come from?

-Spain-

  • Largest      producer of olive oil. Spain produces about 45 percent of the world’s      olive supply.
  • Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow with a      fruity, nutty flavor.
  • Most      Spanish olive oil is produced by mill cooperatives. The cooperative system      in many cases does not incentivize growers to harvest their olives early      and produce quality oil because the formula used to determine payments to      the member farmer emphasizes oil quantity over quality—oil yield      increases, but quality degrades, as the olive is left unpicked and becomes      overripe.
  • There      is also a substantial segment of premium olive oil producers in Spain who,      like premium producers worldwide, tend to harvest early in order to      preserve the flavor and polyphenol content of the oil.

-Italy-

  • Italy      is the second-largest producer of olive oil after Spain.      Italy grows about 20 percent of the world’s olives.
  • Italian olive oil is often dark green and has an herbal      aroma and a grassy flavor.
  • Traditionally,      olive oil has been considered primarily an Italian product by consumers in      the U.S. and European markets, and the association of Italy with olive oil      is still prevalent today. Consequently, Italy is home to large blending      and bottling operations owned by multinational companies. These companies      import large quantities of olive oil from foreign producers, primarily in      the Mediterranean region, which is then blended for consistent taste      profiles.
  • There      is concern throughout the Italian industry that the national brand      reputation is at risk of being damaged by low-quality blends that contain      very little Italian oil, but are marketed as Italian products.

-Greece-

  • Greece      is the third largest producer of olive oil, but little of its oil is exported      as a Greek product. Greece produces about 13 percent of the world’s olive      supply      Most Greek olive oil is consumed domestically, and most of the remainder      is exported to bottlers in Italy for blending with olive oils from various      sources.
  • Greece      enjoys a reputation for producing high quality olive oil. As much as 80%      of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, the highest share in the      Mediterranean. Greek oils can be differentiated from others because they      have desirable flavor profiles and score well on chemical tests measuring      quality. This is partially because oil milled from Koroneiki olives tends      to be the highest in polyphenol content and lowest acidity among all olive      oils.
  • Greek      oils are also considered among the fruitiest and most robust. Greek olive      oil packs a strong flavor and aroma and tends to be green. As a result,      they are in high demand by bottlers for blending with other extra virgin      oils to raise the overall quality.
  • The      Greek olive oil industry has generally poor marketing infrastructure.

-California-

  • California olive oil is light in color and flavor, with a bit of fruity taste.

 

Penne al’Amalfitano

A bowl of penne layered with 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce, a spoon of pesto* and topped with a spoon of ricotta cheese drizzled with extra virgin olive oil

*Pesto

Ingredients:

1 cup of chopped fresh Italian Parsley

1 ½ cup chopped fresh Basil

½ cup of grated parmagiana cheese

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup of toasted pignoli nuts or toasted walnuts

1 large clove of garlic

¼ tsp salt

½ boiled potato ( mashed) yellow potato is the creamiest choice of potato

Procedure:

Blend all together in food processor/ blender.