Lemon Caper Butter adds a lively, delicate finish to Sole Fillets—or cod or chicken breasts or turkey cutlets… Recipe below.
We all have certain little tricks, techniques and simple recipes up our sleeves—versatile weapons in our culinary arsenal we can turn to when we want to liven up or elevate a dish or a meal. A healthy sprinkle of herbes de Provence when roasting chicken, for instance, or [especially lately for me] whisking a little flour and butter together in a hot skillet to make a faux roux to thicken a sauce.
And then there’s lemon caper butter. Quick and easy to throw together at the last minute, this sauce lends a bright, complex touch to simply prepared, light main courses. In its simplest form, it combines the undeniable richness of butter with the brightness of lemon and the briny tang of capers. Most often used with seafood dishes, lemon caper butter also plays nicely with chicken breasts, turkey cutlets or even veal scaloppine—anything light and fairly mild in flavor.
I say simplest form because it seems there are as many ideas about how to make this sauce as there are cooks. Various recipes called for everything from shallots to parsley, garlic, tomatoes, chives, pine nuts… one recipe even included sour cream! I’m sure some of these additions would produce delicious sauces, but what I wanted to taste was the ingredients the sauce was named for.
Capers: The smaller the better
First, what are they? Capers are the pickled, unripened flower buds of Capparis spinosa. According to Food Network, they’re the “buds of a thorny, trailing shrub that grows like a weed all over the Mediterranean. It’s a stubborn, ornery plant, difficult to cultivate, with a preference for dry, stony places.” After the buds are harvested, they’re dried in the sun and pickled in vinegar or wine, with plenty of salt. The curing brings out their tangy flavor, which has been compared to green olives. To me, though, there’s none of the bitterness I associate with olives.
As Food Network says, “The quality of capers is inversely related to their size; the smaller, the better. The best, sold as nonpareilles or surfines, have an extra intensity and cost to match.” Capers are a staple throughout the Mediterranean, but even in American supermarkets, you often have a variety to choose from. All things being equal, buy the smallest you can find.
Besides a lovely, delicate flavor, lemon caper butter offers the benefit of coming together very quickly. For this post, I served it over sole fillets and only began assembling its prepped ingredients in a sauce pan after I’d cooked the fish on one side and turned it.
Sole Fillets with Lemon Caper Butter
For the fish:
2 sole fillets, about 6 ounces each [or other mild white fish]
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon capers, drained [see Kitchen Notes]
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
Cook the fish. Heat a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Season fish with salt and pepper [you can season both sides—I just seasoned the "presentation" side, the fleshy side of the fillet, as opposed to the side where the skin had been]. Add the oil to the skillet and sauté the fillets one one side for about 3 minutes, then carefully turn and sauté until just cooked through—this took about three minutes with the the fillets I had [see Kitchen Notes]. Transfer cooked fillets to individual serving plates. You can tent with foil or not.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. When you turn the fish, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. I clarified my butter, removing it from the heat when it was melted and skimming off the solids that formed. You can do this or not—it won’t especially affect the taste, but it will enhance the appearance. Return the butter to the heat and add the capers. Let them cook for 45 seconds to a minute, until they become fragrant. Add the lemon juice and zest and remove from heat. Stir to combine and spoon over fillets. Serve immediately.
Sole fillets, delicate in more ways than one. This lovely white fish not only has a delicate flavor, it becomes positively fragile as it cooks [many mild white-fleshed fish share this annoying quality]. So turn it and plate it as carefully as possible, but don’t sweat it if it breaks up on you—even if you need to photograph it. I’m going to try to heed my own advice next time I cook this otherwise wonderful fish.
Caper care. Food network also provided this valuable tip: “Capers will keep indefinitely so long as they remain submerged in their own brine. So take care to leave the brine behind when spooning capers from their jar. If they’re not submerged, use them up faster, but don’t top off the jar with vinegar—it’ll make them spoil faster.” And if you’re looking for a delicious way to use them up, try my Pasta Shells with Italian Tuna and Artichokes.