Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Cooking

Pepper adds history and another dimension to food

Pepper is hot.

And earthy. And aggressive. And sneeze-inducing.

It's also ubiquitous, sitting alongside the salt shaker 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 a 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 boom 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.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.

Comments
Transform your weeknight cooking with this kitchen tool

Transform your weeknight cooking with this kitchen tool

Once upon a time, way back in the annals of home cooking, there was an era before sheet-pan suppers.In that dark age, even well-equipped kitchens did not have so much as a single professional sheet pan, let alone the two or three deemed indispensable...
Published: 05/23/18
Vanilla is complex, even smoky, and may be a bakerís best friend

Vanilla is complex, even smoky, and may be a bakerís best friend

By Kim OdeSomewhere along the line, vanilla became synonymous with bland or ordinary.Which is just plain wrong.Blame it on a world of Chubby Hubby ice cream and Candy Cane Oreos, where "more" sounds like "better," where fake flavors bolster profits.I...
Published: 05/23/18
Five ideas for cooking with lavender

Five ideas for cooking with lavender

Lavender is almost as pretty to smell as it is to look at, but as far as taste goes, the results arenít always as appealing. A little like cilantro, lavender can taste soapy to some people, making it a tricky plant to use properly. But, when used the...
Published: 05/22/18
I tried making restaurant-quality braised short ribs at home

I tried making restaurant-quality braised short ribs at home

One of my 2018 cooking resolutions was to cook at least 10 things this year that I never have before. Somewhere near the top of my list was short ribs. You can hardly eat at a restaurant now without seeing short rib in some form on the menu: braised,...
Published: 05/22/18
Taste test: new (and very sugary) cereals

Taste test: new (and very sugary) cereals

My addiction to sugar began as a child. I loved sugary breakfast cereals as a morning meal or an evening snack, the sweeter the better. We used to joke in my house that I even added table sugar to Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms. Thankfu...
Published: 05/21/18
Five ideas for sleep-friendly midnight snacks

Five ideas for sleep-friendly midnight snacks

When the clock strikes midnight, I reach for the cookie jar. Okay, maybe itís not an actual jar ó maybe Iím even lazier, and I reach for the cardboard box of chocolate chip cookies I bought from the store. The point is, my late-night snack habits are...
Published: 05/16/18
Exploring alternative tea drinks to toast Prince Harry and Meghan Markleís royal wedding

Exploring alternative tea drinks to toast Prince Harry and Meghan Markleís royal wedding

The year was 2011. It was the night before Prince Williamís wedding to Kate Middleton, and I stood in my kitchen making chocolate chip scones. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m., with plans to sit in the spare bedroom of the townhome and watch Britainís ro...
Published: 05/15/18
Taste test: pineapple juice

Taste test: pineapple juice

Having always loved a fresh pineapple stick in my brewed iced tea, I wondered recently if a splash of pineapple juice would give it the same sweet kick. While few of us drink pure pineapple juice, our panelists definitely enjoy an occasional watered-...
Published: 05/14/18
Branch out: Give Sauteed Asparagus in Soy Sauce Glaze a try

Branch out: Give Sauteed Asparagus in Soy Sauce Glaze a try

Asparagus is by far the favorite vegetable of my family. I can serve nearly 3 pounds of asparagus a couple of times a week to my family of six, and my girls will still argue over who gets the last stalk. I say this not to impress you with the adventu...
Published: 05/11/18
Five ideas for Motherís Day breakfasts

Five ideas for Motherís Day breakfasts

Are you stumped for Motherís Day ideas? Donít stress. This year, surprise the mothers in your life with a special breakfast that fits perfectly with their personalities. Whether she loves the tradition of breakfast-in-bed or prefers her meals on the ...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/10/18