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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
Peppercorn Pork Loin Roast
1 (2 ½-pound) lean, boneless pork loin roast
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon low-fat buttermilk
2 cups soft whole-wheat bread crumbs
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons whole assorted peppercorns, crushed
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
¼ teaspoon salt
Fresh thyme sprigs (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Trim fat from roast. Combine mustard and buttermilk. Spread mustard mixture over roast.
Combine bread crumbs and next 4 ingredients; press bread crumb mixture evenly onto roast. Place roast on a rack in a roasting pan coated with cooking spray. Insert a meat thermometer into thickest part of roast, if desired. Bake at 325 degrees for 2 hours or until meat thermometer registers 160 degrees. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with thyme sprigs, if desired.
Source: All-New Complete Step-by-Step Diabetic Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2006)
Lemon and Black Pepper Slice-and-Bake Cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup loosely packed, finely grated lemon zest (from about 4 medium lemons)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon fine salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter), at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Whisk together the flour, zest, baking powder, pepper and salt in a medium bowl to break up any lumps; set aside.
Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until lightened in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.
Return the mixer to medium speed, add the egg and vanilla, and beat until incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with the rubber spatula.
Turn the mixer to low speed and slowly add in the reserved flour mixture. Mix until just incorporated.
Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and divide it in half. Roll each portion into a log about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Wrap each log tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
When ready to bake the cookies, heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Slice the dough into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Place the rounds about ½ inch apart on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper (about 20 cookies per sheet).
Place both sheets in the oven and bake for 6 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets front to back and top to bottom and bake until the edges of the cookies are firm but the tops are still soft, about 6 to 7 minutes more.
Place the baking sheets on wire racks and let them cool for 5 minutes. Using a flat spatula, transfer the cookies to the wire racks to cool completely.
Makes about 40 cookies.
Source: Aida Mollenamp via Chow.com
Strawberry Cream Parfaits With Black Pepper and Balsamic Syrup
For the balsamic syrup:
½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the parfaits:
2 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for garnish
2 cups whipping cream
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, chilled
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Fresh mint leaves, garnish
Freshly grated lemon zest, garnish
To make the syrup, combine vinegar, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil until syrup is reduced by half, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cool completely. (Syrup may be made up to one day in advance. Cover and refrigerate.)
One hour before serving, combine strawberries and balsamic syrup in a large bowl. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon black pepper and gently toss to combine. Let sit at room temperature for one hour.
Combine whipping cream, mascarpone cheese, sugar and vanilla extract in bowl of electric mixer. Beat until soft peaks form. (Cream may be prepared up to 4 hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate.)
Assemble parfaits: Divide half the strawberries among 8 glasses or bowls. Spoon cream over strawberries to cover. Spoon remaining strawberries over cream. Top with a dollop of cream. Drizzle with any remaining syrup.
To garnish, grind a little black pepper over cream and garnish with mint leaves and grated lemon zest.
Steak au Poivre
1 thick-cut, well-marbled strip steak, about 1 pound total weight, and 1 ½ inches thick
2 tablespoons mixed whole peppercorns, including black, white, green and Szechuan
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
For the pan sauce:
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons cognac (or bourbon or red wine)
½ cup flavorful dark stock
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
Chopped parsley for garnish
Trim the steak of all the surrounding fat and cartilage. Cut the meat into two pieces and crush the peppercorns using the bottom of a heavy skillet.
Sprinkle salt to taste on the top and bottom of the steaks; then press each side into the cracked peppercorns, encrusting the steaks lightly or heavily, as you prefer.
Heat the oil and the butter in a heavy saute or frying pan over high heat. When the pan is quite hot, lay the peppered steaks in. Fry for about 1 ½ to 2 minutes, until the undersides are well seared. Turn the meat and cook the second side for about a minute. Press with a finger to test for the slight springiness that indicates rare. Cook to desired doneness and remove to a warm platter.
To make the sauce, add the shallots to the pan and saute briefly, stirring with a spoon to scrape up the drippings. Lean away from the stove (averting your face) and pour the cognac into the pan; tilt the edge of the pan slightly, over the burner flame, to ignite the alcohol. The cognac will flame for a few seconds as the alcohol burns off. Cook for a few moments more and then add the stock. Bring the liquid back to the boil, and cook about 1 minute to thicken the sauce, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning. Finally, add the soft butter, swirling the pan until it melts and incorporates with the juices.
When blended, pour the sauce over the steaks. Sprinkle liberally with chopped parsley.
Source: Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home by Julia Child and Jacques Pépin (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)