Strange capers shape Washington legends. The frolicsome sort, not the edible variety, grabs all the attention. Yet nibbling capers can be as enjoyable as cutting capers.

These baby pea-sized flower buds are a staple of the cuisine of Mediterranean and North African countries, where the prickly caper bush, Capparis spinosa, creeps like a bramble along rocky cliffs and castle ruins.

The shrub has been identified with the biblical hyssop, whose twigs were used in religious rites. Today, cultivation occurs in widely-separated parts of the world, from France, Sicily and other parts of southern Europe to England, Canada, Florida and California.

In early summer, the showy flowers with stamens like tassels unfold at sunrise and close at sunset. But it is the young and tender buds that are prized as a sprightly condiment. The highest quality capers -- called nonpareils -- are the tightest buds. These are gathered in copper sieves at dawn before they open, then graded by size, the smaller the better.

Once harvested, the buds are dry-cured in salt, which enhances their slightly bitter taste, or preserved in vinegar, which makes them piquant like gherkins. Although for some reason salted capers are quite a bit more expensive than the pickled ones, Italian groceries charge considerably less than supermarkets for both.

Either kind imparts a unique flavor to sauces and casseroles. While capers usually play a supporting role in cooking, it is a crucial role.

Italian antipastos, caponata and vitello tonnato, for example, would be impoverished without their capperi. Butter and cream sauces enlivened with capers brighten otherwise bland fish and meat dishes. French salad dressings and tartar sauce need chopped capers for flavor. And while cold artichokes, another edible flower, are delicious with a squeeze of lemon, they are sublime with caper vinaigrette.

Steak tartare and capers married years ago, but a long-term, on-again, off-again romance continues between capers and leg of lamb. With this association in mind, Shakespeare's characters in "Twelfth Night" pun:

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Faith I can cut a caper.

Sir Toby Belch: And I can cut the mutton to it.

Capers spark the flavor of mustard, brown butter and mayonnaises and serve as a foil to celery or celery root in salads. They are essential to eggs in aspic and, in a more exotic vein, to lamb's tongues in aspic.

As a garnish, capers can dot, circle or outline stuffed eggs, tomato salads, vegetables, cold roasts and canapes. For multi-colored appeal, top parsley-sprinkled lemon slices with capers and anchovies.

Also try combining them with chicken, sweetbreads, calf's brains, shrimp, boiled beef or tongue to make foods more appetizing while supplying a quality of mystery to their taste.

Although in the 18th century dieticians considered capers too "astringent," contemporary gastronomes savor their tang and value their soft yet crunchy texture. No modern cook should get along without them. Here, then, are a few capers to cut.

NORTH AFRICAN SPICY TOMATO AND CAPER SALAD (6 servings) 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved 10 red and green pickled hot cherry peppers, seeded and chopped 5 stalks celery, chopped 1/2 cup chopped parsley 1/2 cup capers, drained 1 thin-skinned lemon, seeded and chopped Salt to taste 1 1/2 teaspoons hot paprika 1/4 cup olive oil

Combine tomatoes, cherry peppers, celery, parsley, capers and lemon. Beat together salt, paprika and olive oil. Pour over tomatoes and toss lightly. Chill well.

ORIENTAL MEAT AND CAPER SALAD (4 servings) 4 dried Chinese black mushrooms 1 1/2 pounds flank steak 1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced 1 red onion, diced 6 scallions, sliced 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 shallot, minced 2 tablespoons minced parsley 2 tablespoons capers 1 cup bean sprouts 4 1/2-ounce jar sliced button mushrooms, drained 1/3 cup water 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar 1/2 tablespoon juice from capers 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

Soak dried mushrooms in boiling water to cover until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, discard stems and slice caps.

Trim all fat from meat and slice meat into very thin strips. Heat oil in a wok or skillet. When very hot, add beef and stir-fry quickly until color changes. Remove from pan.

In a large serving bowl combine onions, scallions, garlic, shallot, parsley, capers, bean sprouts and mushrooms. Add water, soy sauce, vinegar and caper juice to wok and bring to a boil. Pour over vegetables and toss. Add beef, toss well and stir in sesame oil. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.

CHICKEN AND CAPERS (4 servings) 2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons oil 1 onion, chopped 2 garlic cloves, chopped 1/2 cup canned tomatoes, chopped 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin 1/4 teaspoon oregano 1 cup chicken broth 1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted 3 tablespoons raisins 4 tablespoons capers, drained

Halve chicken breasts and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a skillet and saute' chicken until brown. Remove from pan. Add onion and garlic to skillet and brown lightly. Add tomatoes, wine, cumin and oregano and bring to a boil. Add broth, browned and slivered almonds, raisins and capers. Return chicken to skillet, cover and cook until tender, about 30 minutes.

HOME-PICKLED CAPERS (Makes 1 pint)

Nasturtium seeds are often used as a substitute for capers in home pickling. 2 cups fresh green nasturtium seeds 1 cup water 1/4 cup salt 1 cup sugar 1 cup cider vinegar

Wash seeds and place in a sterilized jar. Combine water and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil 5 minutes and cool completely. Pour over seeds, cover and let stand 48 hours. Drain. Boil sugar and vinegar for 5 minutes and pour over seeds while still hot. Seal in sterilized jars.

HOT CAPER MAYONNAISE (Makes about 1 1/2 cups) 2 egg yolks 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1/8 teaspoon pepper 2 teaspoons lemon juice 1 cup olive oil 1/4 cup capers 1 tablespoon grated onion 2 tablespoon toasted almonds, chopped 1 tablespoon minced parsley

In a small mixing bowl, beat together with an electric mixer at meduim speed egg yolks, salt, mustard and pepper. Beat in 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Add 1/4 cup oil, drop by drop, beating constantly. Beat in 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice and remaining oil in a thin stream. Beat in remaining lemon juice. Transfer to the top of a double boiler and heat, stirring gently. Add capers, onions, almonds and parsley. Serve over hot vegetables, fish or shrimp.

CAPER CREAM SAUCE (Makes 2 cups) 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 3 tablespoons flour 1 1/2 cups beef broth, lamb broth or fish stock 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard, optional 1/4 cup capers, drained

In a small saucepan melt butter and add flour to make a roux. Stir until slightly browned. In a separate pan bring broth to a boil. Add to roux and stir until smooth and slightly thickened. Add cream, salt, pepper and mustard and heat without boiling. Just before serving, stir in capers. Serve with tongue, beef, lamb or fish.

CAPER VINAIGRETTE SAUCE (Makes 1 cup) 3/4 cup olive or salad oil 1/4 cup lemon juice or wine vinegar 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard Salt to taste Dash cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons chopped capers 1 teaspoon minced parsley 1/2 tablespoon chopped chives 1/2 teaspoon tarragon

Beat together oil and lemon juice. Add mustard, salt, pepper, capers, parsley, chives and tarragon. Chill and serve with cold vegetables or shellfish. Or heat and serve with boiled beef.