Like hearts of palm, capers have become a fixture in salad bars, smoked salmon spreads, and meat marinades. But besides their characteristically piquant flavor, what do we know about them? Capers have played a significant role in Mediterranean cuisine for thousands of years; early dishes have been traced back to before 3000 BC. These tiny green dots are the immature flower buds of a thorny, prickly bush that's widespread all over the Middle East and Mediterranean.

Processing the buds is labor-intensive, as they must be plucked at a specific point in the maturation process. The bud, which is generally flavorless when fresh, develops an intense, sharp flavor after the blossoms are sun-dried and brined in vinegar, salt, or wine. And while they range in size from 7 mm to the size of a small olive, smaller caper varieties are more aromatic and come with a higher price tag.

Are you astonished to hear that capers have been preserved for thousands of years? What are your favorite ways to enjoy them?