Pan-fried fish fillets with capers on pesto mash

FishFilletsWithCapers © J Horak-Druiff 2010


Capers.  Slippery little suckers, aren’t they?

I mean, for a start, what are they?  Seeds?  Berries?  What??  I grew up believing I knew exactly what they were.  My father told me that they were the pickled seeds of the nasturtium plant and seeing as the Afrikaans word for nasturtium is kappertjie, there seemed to be an etymological connection.  Besides, what reason would my own father possibly have to lie to me?

My father also told me he had swam against Johnny Weissmuller in the 1928 Olympics. Ahem.

So I should not really have been surprised to find that capers have absolutley nothing to do with nasturtiums!  The plant that yields the caper is in fact a spiny perennial shrub (Capparis spinosa) that grows wild in the rocky coastal Mediterranean region.  What we know as capers are in fact this plant’s flower buds, harvested and pickled in brine.  Capers are categorized and sold by their size, with the smallest sizes being the most desirable.  In order of zize, they are:  non-pareil (up to 7 mm), surfines (7–8 mm), capucines (8–9 mm), capotes (9–11 mm), fines (11–13 mm), and grusas (14+ mm). But if you leave the flowers on the plant and allow it to flower and fruit, you get a different harvest:  the caperberry, which is also pickled and often features on Greek meze platters. But back to capers – these salty little nuggets are great for livening up the taste of any dish, which makes then wonderful with the fairly mild flavours of fish.

Recently I was in a rush to make dinner and instead of oven-baking the fish as I usually do, I decided to pan-fry it.  I didn’t want to drown it in sauce, but at the same time I did not want it bland – and that’s when I remembered the frizzled, crispy capers I’d had with pork at Viajante earlier this year.  I didn’t end up making mine crispy, but I imagine it would not be that hard if you dry-fried them.  I honestly cannot tell you what the fish was as it came from the fresh fish counter and had lost its label – probably either cod or haddock – but you can make this dish with any firm white fish fillets (kingklip and hake immediately spring to mind).  The pesto mash was the result of my having to use up the surfeit of Purely Pesto left over in my fridge from varous Food Blogger Connect ’10 goodie bags – and it was heavenly!  The whole meal was quick and easy, yet delicious and elegant – what more could you possibly want?





2 firm white fish fillets (about 200g each), skin on
salted butter
2 Tbsp capers, drained
2 floury potatoes, peeled
milk and butter for mashing
2-3 Tbsp basil pesto
salt and pepper


Boil or microwave the potatoes with their skin on.  When they are cooked through, peel and mash with butter and milk until desired consistency is reached, then stir in the pesto.  Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.  Keep warm.

Rinse and pat the fish fillets dry. Season with salt and pepper.   Heat about a tablespoon of butter in a non-stick pan over medium high heat.  When it is bubbling, add the fish fillets, skin side down.  Cook for about 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, then flip the fish over, add the capers to the pan and cook for another minute until the capers are warm and the fish is just cooked.

Serve on the pesto mash, skin side up, topped with capers and the buttery pan juices.

If you enjoyed this recipe, you may also like my cod fillets with a tomato pesto and almond crust, my spinach and feta cheese baked fish fillets, or my trout fillets with almonds and samphire.

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  1. says

    On many walks in Greece I saw capers growing wild at every corner. They even pickle the leaves which are delicious on top of salads just as the buds are on top of your fish and mash.

  2. says

    ….and my father told me that if you lie while you eat, you will sure grow horns….fathers, mmmmpf!!
    As for capers…it is fantastic to have in the fridge to liven up those bland fish and chicken meals…even the odd sandwich!

  3. says

    Your dad wasn’t entirely wrong. Many people make mock capers from nasturtium seed (pickled, of course), which is peppery and, incidentally, good for taking as a remedy against worms (you didn’t really want to know that, did you?). I wonder if we perhaps got ‘kappertjie’ from it’s similarity in appearance to capers. Who knows. I now have a craving for fish.

  4. says

    I was going to say the same as Tint – that your father wasn’t straight out lying at least! I’m sure I read that in South Africa nasturtium seed capers were more common than the real thing once upon a time.

  5. says

    My father-in-law told me the same thing about capers and was VERY surprised to learn otherwise. Maybe this is one of the things they learn at “Father School”.
    But, as Tint said, some people make a not unreasonable facsimile (or so I’ve been told) for capers by pickling nasturtium flower buds rather than the seeds – I think that’s what I’ve read anyway.
    But really let me stop being distracted by nasturtiums! This fish sounds fabulous and I love that you mixed basil pesto into your mashed potatoes. I particularly like the first photo.
    (Might I suggest that you mash the pototoes dry first and then add milk, butter, pesto? They’re much easier to mash when they’re dry.)

  6. says

    Capers have always given me the heebie-jeebies for some odd reason although they are perfect in steak tartare! Your fish dishes always look fabulous! And really? The Olympics? Johnny Weissmuller?

  7. says

    LOL …:-D
    I usually cook my fish in the pan with very little oil, for I like the crisp and the light blackening that happens at the edges. My daughter esp. loves the crisps. what a wonderful way to liven up a fish.. ah capers!