PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 2004, 12:00am

People have a love 'em or hate 'em feeling about capers. In their most common form, the small buds are picked just before they bloom and are pickled in vinegary brine. They are also sometimes preserved in salt. The brine or salt is usually rinsed from the capers before use.

In general, the tiniest capers (called nonpareil) are better than the larger varieties because they have a more delicate flavour and texture. They all have a sharp, pungent taste that goes well with other strong flavours such as garlic, olive, anchovy and lemon.

Capers are often used in Mediterranean cuisines, where caper bushes grow in the wild. Salsa verde is a wonderful sauce for fish and meat. It takes minutes to prepare, and because the capers are invisible even caper-haters enjoy the sauce. Take a large bunch of curly-leaf parsley and discard the tough stems. Put the leaves and tender stems in the bowl of a food processor. Add one or two peeled cloves of garlic, one or two anchovy fillets, a heaped teaspoon of rinsed capers, some freshly squeezed lemon juice and grated lemon zest and lots of extra virgin olive oil. Process the ingredients to a rough puree. Serve with bollito misto (mixed boiled meats), roast beef or chicken, pan-fried or grilled fish. The leftovers keep for several days in the fridge.

Pasta puttanesca (prostitutes' pasta) reportedly earned its name because ladies-of-the-night could make it quickly and return to work (although what their clients said about the subsequent garlic breath has not been recorded). The garlic takes some time to roast but the rest of the dish takes less than 30 minutes to make. Take a head of garlic and cut off the top third to expose the flesh of the cloves; leave it intact at the base. Drizzle the garlic with olive oil and wrap it loosely in a sheet of aluminium foil. Roast the garlic in a 200-degree-Celsius oven for about 45 minutes.

After the garlic has roasted for about 30 minutes, start boiling the pasta in a large pot of salted water. In a large skillet heat some olive oil and briefly cook dried chilli flakes until fragrant (take care because the chilli burns easily). Add a few chopped anchovies to the oil and stir. Add a 400-gram can of roughly chopped Italian plum tomatoes, a heaped teaspoon of rinsed capers, some pitted Nicoise olives and salt and pepper to taste. Stir the ingredients together then simmer over a low heat to reduce the sauce. Remove the garlic from the oven and let it cool slightly. Squeeze the garlic from the skins; leave the smaller cloves whole but shred the large cloves into several pieces (you won't need the whole head; cover the remainder with olive oil and store in the fridge). Stir the garlic cloves into the sauce and add the al dente, drained pasta. Simmer to heat the pasta and then serve immediately.