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Learning to Love Capers (With a Lot of Help from Tomatoes)

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I took the "greatest hits" from some of my favorite home cooks, combined them into one salad, and added a whole lot of crispy oven-roasted capers.

My name is Sarah Jampel and I was born with a distaste for capers. 

At least that’s what I thought until I ordered the roasted vegetable lasagna in the bar room of Gramercy Tavern. Unable to identify (or remove) the small brown balls that were fraternizing with the flat strips of noodles, eggplant, and zucchini, I tried them fearlessly, my judgment not yet clouded by prejudice. What were these crunchy pops of salt? I scrunched my face at my friends when they broke the news. I was outraged, but I kept eating. 

And with this gateway experience, my hatred of capers began to erode. I dipped my toe into the sea of their briny, pungent, acidic flavor and ventured a bit deeper. I threw a handful into David Tanis’ zucchini pasta, enjoyed them soaked in a butter-lemon sauce over fried sole (more on eating fish for the first time later), and blended them to make summer squash gratin. Over the course of a year, I turned from hesitant to heady. Once a person who avoided even touching the caper jar in other peoples’ refrigerators, I now have my own half-full container. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself.

Why the dislike of capers to begin with? Perhaps it sprung from ignorance—because capers often make an appearance with lox, I understood them to be sea creatures—or upbringing: My parents wouldn’t touch a caper with a five-foot pole. There is also security in these default restrictions. I may market myself as a vegetarian who will eat anything as long as it's neither meat nor fish, but it’s not true. My list of banned foods—no raw fennel, no cooked fennel, no excessive fennel seeds; no white asparagus; no olives; no passionfruit, guava, or papaya; no blue cheese; and I’d rather avoid juniper—helps me to quickly scan a menu and veto a potential recipe. Developing a taste for an ingredient I used to fear makes choosing what to cook all the more difficult.

Options constantly increase as my tastes change and once-elusive ingredients become easier to find—and I find it more and more overwhelming. I imagine cooking a meal with none of the limits normally imposed by time, money, dietary restrictions, and access to ingredients: What would I cook in the midst of this hypothetical anarchy, this frantic freedom? I have no idea.

Here’s where I seek guidance from the people I admire. While the stars of this tomato and salsa verde salad are the crispy roasted capers, inspired by my Gramercy Tavern introduction, the other components are more familiar: The idea of mixing roasted and fresh tomatoes comes from Heidi Swanson’s upcoming book Near & Far; the green sauce is adapted from Amanda, who uses it on meat, in grain salads, and surely in a million other ways; the courage to use an anchovy comes from Kenzi and Phyllis, who convinced me there must be something to this fishy seductress; the idea to use the excess tomato oil as the base for the green sauce comes from Kristen, who recently taught me how to use that oil to sauté shrimp; and the serving over yogurt comes from Merrill—it’s how she serves her roasted zucchini

Instead of culling through all of the colors, flavors, textures, and ingredients that have inspired me over the past month, I plucked these cooks' greatest hits and put them all together. If that makes me a thief, at least I'm a thief with good taste. 

Ali Slagle demonstrates how to eat this salad for breakfast (left) and lunch (right).

If you're feeling inspired, you can take this salad in whatever direction you like. For those of you who, like me, benefit from a little direction, here are some ideas:

  • Add parsley breadcrumbs before serving
  • Fry the basil leaves rather than adding them fresh
  • Instead of serving it over yogurt, incorporate rugged chunks of feta or ricotta salata
  • Mix in roughly chopped dates or unsulfured apricots 
  • Blend a dollop of harissa, gochujang, or tahini into the dressing
  • Top with crunchy roasted chickpeas
  • Make a simple dressing of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, and honey

And, lest you believe you've maxed out your choices, just think of what you can do with your extra green sauce: Spoon it on top of fried or scrambled eggs; spread it on top of salmon before you bake it; use it to dress shrimp that’s been sautéed in tomato oil, stir it into yogurt, mix it into Genius Zucchini Butter, or fold in roughly chopped herbs and ricotta cheese and treat it like pasta sauce. 

Half Roasted Tomato Salad with Salsa Verde

Serves 4 to 6

For the salad:

quart sweet cherry tomatoes, preferably a mixture of colors and shapes

garlic cloves, lightly crushed

Olive oil, for roasting

Coarse salt, for sprinkling, plus more to taste

tablespoons drained capers

large or 2 medium/small ripe beefsteak tomatoes, chopped into large chunks

handful thinly sliced red onions (half-moon shape), soaked in ice water for 10 minutes, drained, and dried (optional step that will remove the onion's bite)

handful fresh basil leaves, to taste
splash red wine vinegar, optional

Greek yogurt, for serving

Fluffy pita, for serving

For the salsa verde:

About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh)

cup coarsely chopped basil

cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

small garlic clove


tablespoon drained capers

pinch red pepper flakes

lemon, for juicing

Freshly ground black pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Bobbi Lin except where otherwise noted

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Tags: Herb, Tomato, Summer, Long Reads, Editors' Picks