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  • 'Commando Spice'

    When it comes to adding flavor, pepper is nothing to sneeze at
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  • Pepper is hot.
    And earthy. And aggressive. And sneeze-inducing.
    It's also ubiquitous, sitting alongside the saltshaker on nearly every table, home or away, in America. But although salt and pepper go together in our minds and often in our cooking, they can stand solo, each adding something unique to food and causing a different reaction on our taste buds.
    In fact, putting them together doesn't always make sense. Salt enhances natural flavors; pepper brings its own punch.
    Salt is one of the four tastes that our taste buds recognize; the others are bitter, sweet and sour. (Umami is the much-talked-about fifth taste that describes savory flavors, such as that of mushrooms, which don't really fit into the other categories.) We like the taste of salt so much so that we ingest too much of it. Watch your pepper intake? Never heard that warning.
    It's difficult to imagine a Caesar salad without a healthy grind of cracked pepper, and the German pfeffernusse cookie gets part of its spiciness from pepper. Steak au Poivre? The classic French dish, which translates to "steak with peppercorns," is something else entirely without the cracked pepper pushed into the meat before it's cooked.
    "A commando spice, pepper is a take-charge kind of condiment that refuses to be subtle or delicate," writes Marjorie Shaffer in the new "Pepper: A History of the World's Most influential Spice" (St. Martin's Press, 2013). Like Mark Kurlansky did in "Salt: A World History" (Penguin Books, 2003), Shaffer puts pepper in its historical place as a valuable commodity that changed the world. In the Roman Empire, pepper was used as aspirin. The Greeks and Chinese added pepper to medicinal elixirs. And European explorers left home for it, plying the lucrative spice route to India, pepper's native land. People died for pepper. They used it as currency.
    Such a long, storied history for the stuff we churn in the grinder.
    Cooking with pepper
    In recent years, whole peppercorns have replaced ground pepper in many households. That's also caused a boon in pepper-grinder design and sales, but there's a reason that using the whole spice is better than the ground. The flavor is fresher, more true.
    As soon as a spice or herb is ground and exposed to the air, it begins to lose potency. Those of us who have a tin of ground pepper in the spice cabinet will likely be hard-pressed to even remember when we bought it. (That's why I am a proponent of labeling spices with purchase dates.)
    That ground pepper may have been languishing in the cabinet for five years, perhaps more. No, it won't kill you, but it is degrading day by day.
    The potency of peppercorns, which are generally sold in smaller quantities, lasts longer because the flavor is protected in the dried berry. Yes, the berry. Peppercorns are the dried berries of a climbing flowering vine that's native to southwest India's Malabar coast. Pepper vines now grow in Vietnam, Ecuador, Brazil and Madagascar, countries either at the equator or near.
    Some dishes — such as soups and stocks — call for whole peppercorns, which impart a more subtle flavor than ground or cracked. They are not meant to be eaten or you'll risk a busted tooth. They should be fished out before serving or your guests need to be warned to push them aside.
    Tellicherry peppercorns are considered the world's finest and often carry a higher price tag, but all pepper comes from the same plant, Piper nigrum, which has been cultivated for more than 1,000 years. There are three types of true peppercorns: White, green and black.
    • White peppercorns are dried black peppercorns that have had the outer casing removed. White pepper is favored in dishes in which the cook doesn't want black specks, such as potato salad, mashed potatoes and white sauces.
    • Green peppercorns are harvested when they are young, and then dehydrated, which draws out moisture and allows them to harden. They have the most subtle flavor and are most often used in Steak au Poivre, or in peppercorn mixes.
    • Black peppercorns are the most commonly used and have the strongest flavor. They are usually left on the vine to harden.
    Pink peppercorns are berries from another type of plant and not truly pepper. They are often found mixed with black and green peppercorns, adding a sweet-sharp flavor to the heat of black pepper. The same is true of Szechuan pepper, a product of the Asian prickly mountain ash tree, which imparts an acidic, lemony flavor that some say actually numbs the mouth a bit. Tasty, but not true pepper.
    History, both culinary and human, and science are interesting and feed a hunger for knowledge. But right now, a Strawberry Cream Parfait With Black Pepper and Balsamic Syrup sounds so much better. Time to work the grinder.
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