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Cooking from the World Pantry: Chicken Piccata

Chicken Piccata | Photo by Maria Zizka
Photo: Maria Zizka

To eat a caper is to eat an unopened flower. There's something very romantic about that. Tiny buds, pure potential, waiting to be added to your pantry.

I think of capers as the missing puzzle piece, a final flourish that gets added to a dish at the last moment and somehow brings everything together. A bagel topped with smoked salmon is fine, but a bagel topped with smoked salmon and a few capers is better, more complete. The capers cut through the richness of the fish and bring a tangy, zesty note into the picture. The same goes for pasta with tomato sauce. Mix in a small handful of capers and all of a sudden you taste a whole range of flavors -- from the sharp acidic edge of the tomatoes to the starchiness of the noodles -- all brought to life in the presence of capers.

The caper plant, Capparis spinosa, grows wild in the Mediterranean, throughout the tropics, and even in the Himalayas. It prefers a semi-arid climate, but tolerates harsh conditions. Capers have been harvested from the wild for millennia and cultivated for centuries. If left unpicked, the caper bud will blossom into a gorgeous flower with papery white petals and a spray of violet-colored stamens. Eventually, the flower wilts and drops off, and is replaced by an oblong, olive-sized fruit. The fruit is known as a caper berry. You may have seen them on antipasti platters.

Capers must be harvested individually by hand. They are too small and delicate to withstand mechanical picking. Once plucked from the plant, they are immediately preserved in either salt or brine, and that is precisely how you will find them for sale at the grocery store. Look for capers grown on Pantelleria, a 32-square-mile volcanic island off the southwestern coast of Sicily. Italians will proudly tell you that Pantelleria's mineral-rich soil results in the most flavorful capers, the very best in the world.

You might come across jars labeled "nonpareil," a term used to categorize capers that measure less than 7mm in diameter. Some cooks consider the smallest capers to be the finest because of their firm texture, but I've also known cooks who favor slightly larger capers for their meatier, more developed flavor. Most will agree that salt-packed capers are preferable to capers soaked in vinegar simply because they taste less washed out.

Before cooking with capers, rinse or soak them thoroughly to remove excess salt, then pat them dry with a towel. If you haven't loved capers in the past, give them another chance. Maybe this time they will surprise you, now that you know they are actually flowers.

Chicken Piccata
Serves 4

You'll want to serve this dish with some warm bread for soaking up all the delicious caper sauce.

2 (5- to 6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup hard apple cider or dry white wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Flat-leaf parsley, for serving
Lemon wedges, for serving

Heat the oven to 300°F.

Cut each chicken breast crosswise into two equal pieces and place them between sheets of parchment paper. Use a meat mallet or a heavy pan to pound the chicken to ¼ inch thick. Season both sides of each piece with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Swirl in the olive oil, then add the chicken. Cook the chicken without moving it for 90 seconds on the first side, flip, then cook for another 90 seconds on the second side, or until blonde-brown on the outside and barely cooked through. Transfer the chicken to an oven-safe plate and place it in the oven to keep warm.

Pour the cider into the skillet and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom. Cook the cider until it reduces in volume by half, about 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, add the butter, capers, and lemon juice, then swirl to incorporate the butter. Once all the butter has melted, taste the sauce for seasoning, adding another pinch of salt, if needed.

Serve each piece of chicken on a warm plate. Pour some of the sauce over the top, and garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.