Why is smoked salmon typically accompanied by capers? Such an odd little condiment. A caper is the pickled, immature bud of the caper bush, a plant native to the semi-arid climates of the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. Its mature fruit, caper berries, are typically packed in salt.
Niki Russ Federman said it's this sharp, briny, saltiness that makes capers a perfect accompaniment for smoked fish: "It cuts through the smokiness and fattiness of the fish."
Russ Federman should know. The 33-year old is the co-owner of Russ and Daughters, that iconic "appetizing" store on the Lower East Side. It's sold smoked and cured fish of all kinds since 1907. She's the fourth generation of her family to run the business, which her great-grandfather, Joel Russ, started from a push cart on Orchard Street.
I mentioned to her that her great-grandfather may have known some of the families whose young daughters died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, 100 years ago Friday.
"If I could have a conversation with my great-grandfather, it would be so interesting to know how the fire touched them, and who they knew, because it really touched the community."
Back to capers. Russ said she doesn't like them.
"I personally think that smoked salmon is so delicate and delicious it doesn't need anything," she said.
I asked for tips on serving capers with smoked salmon. After all, they're small and round, and tend to roll. This is where cream cheese comes in.
"Yeah, the law of food and physics means you put the capers on something that would help it stick, like cream cheese or creme fraiche," she said. Or she recommends using the larger caper berries, chopping them up and spreading them on the fish.
Russ Federman tried other things before working at the store: "I worked in the art world, at the United Nations, at international development organizations."
She went to business school at Yale, but didn't stay. She migrated to the family store "once I checked everything off my list. It's hard to fight destiny!"
She loves being part of a family business with such deep roots in New York City.
"It's great to be able to maintain something, some continuity, when everything is changing, being in a place that has been around for 100 years, serving the same food," she said.
Like smoked salmon and capers.