This is a guest post by my friend Rob, chef extraordinaire.
I hate capers.
Rowdy and I were talking about irrational food hatreds last week and this one came up. Essentially, an irrational food hatred is one where you hate a food based on spurious reasons. Obviously, food allergies and sensitivities don’t count. If you eat a mushroom and your head turns purple and swells to 2x its normal size and you suddenly talk in an outrageous French accent for two hours (“Zut alors, why deed I eet those mushrooms!”), that’s not an irrational food hatred, it’s a self-defense mechanism that preserves dignity, sanity and health.
I think most irrational food hatreds fall into a couple of categories: 1) Things people hated as a kid or teen for kid or teen reasons and then never cottoned to as adults. 2) Things people have had, but hated, because they were improperly prepared or poor examples of the food.
But when Rowdy and I talked about my hatred of capers, it clearly fell into a third category. It’s not that I didn’t like them as a kid and must maintain that hate. It’s not that I’ve had them poorly prepared and if I just had a good example of them I’d be willing to revise that opinion. No, I hate them for philosophical reasons.
Let me ‘asplain. I think capers are the ‘bridge too far’ of a kitchen sink cook. Ok, that didn’t explain very well, so let me elaborate.
My favorite cooks are the ones that read a recipe, understand what it’s going for, and can adapt it at will to the constraints of ingredients on hand, elevation, humidity, roux not rouxing, and sanity. They know that that rosemary would be just as good as thyme in that roasted chicken dish. They know that a meat thermometer is better than a timer for determining when that chicken is done. They aren’t afraid to take the printed word and using it as a jumping off point for their own creations. On my best days, I count myself amongst them.
And then there are my least favorite cooks. These are the kitchen sink cooks. These are the ones who look at a pile of disparate ingredients, and instead of thinking, “How can I blend these into a harmonious whole? How will they complement each other? What elements do I need to edit to make it work?” they think, “You know, I think I’ll cram all these together in one pot!” Lack of experience and dearth of thoughtfulness is not an impediment to these cooks. They’ll serve you mushy, but bland, stir-fries. They’ll put a casserole on the table, and you’ll swear you see marshmallows and broccoli peeking out of it. Everything they make is messy, there’s no subtlety or complexity to their flavor profiles. And, most disturbingly of all, they’ll put capers on damn near everything.
A kitchen sink cook looks at a dish and thinks, “What else can I add to this?” as if they need to clean out their cupboards and culinary experimentation is the way to do it. And too often—far too often—the thing they add last, the piece de resistance, the bridge too far, is the caper.
And that’s why I must hate the lowly caper. I haven’t had one in years, and I’d not be inclined to use a recipe including them (although, I have made dishes that call for them and just skipped their inclusion). It’s not that I don’t like salty, briny things (I love me a good olive bar), it’s just that they represent a disturbing lack of editing. When I see them in most menus, I know I can safely avoid ordering the offending dish and spare myself the chef’s indecisive, meandering attempt at haute cuisine.
Where my hatred extends into the clearly irrational, though, is that I typically won’t eat a recipe where capers are clearly a main ingredient, and not some last-minute, ill-thought-out addition. Case in point, Alton Brown’s pan-fried fish recipe.
In the episode “Hook, Line and Dinner” Alton has a simple, but immensely satisfying recipe for cooking fish filets that can be found here.
You’ll notice, however, that it uses the dreaded caper. In his dish, it is clearly a highlight of the sauce. In fact, it’s one of only 3 real ingredients (fat, lemon juice, caper). Still, I don’t think it needs it. In fact, I rarely even use lemon juice in this preparation.
Here’s how I’ve been making fish lately, inspired by his recipe, but without the hated capers.
- Fish, in filets, skin on or off. Tilapia work well for this, as do any of the fish mentioned in the original (basically, any sort of mild, thinnish fish).
- Oil. He specifies canola, I usually end up using olive oil of the non-extra virgin variety cause of its smokepoint.
- Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, or some other mixture of vague spiciness depending on your inclinations and tolerances.
Heat some oil in a frying pan. Alton says to season the fish first before dredging, but I’ve seasoned it first, last, or made the seasoning part of the flour and it all seems to come out just fine. Regardless, season the fish and dredge it lightly in the flour. Put the butter in the pan, and when you’ve got a nice, hot, delicious fat going, lay the filet in the pan. Flip it after you’ve got the golden crust on the bottom, careful, as Alton mentions, to flip it away from you so as not to shower yourself in molten oil and butter. When the other side is done, transfer it to a plate. Eat.
See what I did there? I completely omitted that part with the lemon juice and capers and saucing the fish. Honestly, it really doesn’t need it. The fish is tender and delicious with just a little bit of seasoning, and while I have immense respect for Alton and think this recipe is clearly one where the capers are an integral part of the sauce he’s devised, I think it can live just fine without the sauce. It’s actually kind of a testament to the delicious simplicity of his recipe.