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Shaking up salt and pepper

In case you haven't noticed, the world of salt and pepper is expanding in colors, flavors and expectations.

Once as dependably white as the sea is green, we are seeing natural salts in rosy shades of pink and coral, tan, lavender and gray, garnishing almost anything from a slab of grilled fish to a grapefruit salad.

Pepper? We've always known it to be colorful, coming as it does in green, white and black. Look around and you'll find a spice labeled pink peppercorn, too.

But where it has usually been relegated to savory food and sauces, pepper has burst its boundaries, showing up in food from soup to dessert.

As fun as color is, though, it is a relatively minor aspect of each of these seasonings.

Let's start with pepper, because the color wheel for this popular spice is familiar to most of us.

Though salt, or sodium chloride, is a chemical that is a necessary part of our diet, pepper is the essence of spice, an embellishment, that extra something.

That's because pepper packs a punch. That zingy sensation on the tongue, as familiar as salt and certainly a complement to it, drove humans to value pepper so much that centuries ago, it became a commodity to rival precious metals in value. Folklore has it that sailors on ships in the spice trade had their pockets sewn closed to prevent them from pilfering the precious cargo.

"The race among leading European powers to find a sea route to the source of those spices helped create our modern world," say the authors of Salt & Pepper by Sandra Cook, Sara Slavin and Deborah Jones (Chronicle Books, $18.95).

Christopher Columbus didn't set out to find the New World. He was looking for the fast track in the race for spices.

Peppercorn is a berry that grows on a tropical vine native to India and Indonesia called Piper nigrum. Black, green and white peppercorns are berries from this vine. Green peppercorns are picked at the unripe stage. We usually find them in two forms: pickled in brine or dried. The brined green peppercorns look much like small pickled capers, but don't be confused. These are from different plants and have different tastes.

Black peppercorns are picked at a riper stage and dried in the sun. Because the plant grows only near the equator, pepper is always imported from exotic locales. The large Tellicherry peppers, for example, come from the northern Malabar coast of India, Lampong pepper from Sumatra. These two are considered among the best peppercorns to buy.

If you pick up a bottle of peppercorns labeled poivre gris, French for "gray pepper," what you have are black peppercorns. The French label them as such, or they call them poivre noir (black pepper).

White pepper, a less powerful spice than black, is fruit picked when it is nearly ripe. The skin is removed before the plant is dried. If you look at it closely, it is more tan than white. Cooks like to use it in white sauces, hollandaise and other dishes in which the black specks might impair the appearance. But it has its own power and a slightly musty flavor, sometimes described as winelike, that differs a bit from black pepper.

Pink peppercorns are fruits that grow in abundant clusters on the Brazil pepper plant. After they are dried, we see them most often as part of four-pepper blends. Color and crunch are the big attractions, though; the flavor of pink peppercorns is quite delicate. These are great for garnish, but use them sparingly. Some people are allergic to them. Chile pepper plants are different from the Piper nigrum, too.

Why does pepper work with fruit or in desserts?

Just as a fruity wine such as syrah or zinfandel might offer peppery flavors that add dimension to its flavor profile, so does the fragrant, smoky bite of pepper add spark to a serving of fresh strawberries or enhance an otherwise bland cookie.

"It's the contrast in taste. It acts as a counterpoint or an accent, really," says Andrew Weissman, chef and owner of Le Reve in San Antonio.

"On Valentine's Day, I don't get flowers from my husband. I get an assortment of salts," says Mary Martini, chef and manager of the Central Market Cooking School in San Antonio.

Salt is a passion with her, such as the beautiful coral-colored Hawaiian sea salts and what she says is the "hottest" salt in the trade these days, Portuguese sea salt.

Some might say that salt is salt is salt, widely available at bargain prices. All true, though salt has a history more ancient than pepper, and it is every bit as colorful.

"Salt is so common, so easy to obtain and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history," says Mark Kurlansky in Salt: A World History (Walker, $28).

Salt was used as currency, a preservative and a measure of wealth, and it is mentioned more times in the Bible than any other food, according to Food Network host and author Alton Brown.

Salt, or sodium chloride, is also an essential part of the cooking process, a staple on the table and a substance humans need to balance fluids in the body. Without it, "you're dead," Brown says in his book I'm Just Here for the Food (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $32.50).

Says Weissman: "I've been to some of the best restaurants in the world and eaten food that wasn't seasoned properly. It's incredibly disappointing. If I'm famished, food not salted enough doesn't even satisfy my hunger."

Like many chefs in fine dining establishments, Weissman doesn't keep salt on the table. He is confident in his ability to hit just the right saltiness in each dish he serves. That is no small feat, he says, considering that each person seems to require differing levels of salt in his food.

The special power of salt in cooking is that it brings out flavors of food and it seems to enhance the way they work together. A pinch of salt in a sweet dough for cookies, for example, focuses the flavor and keeps it from being bland.

Weissman also practices something that many cooks, professional and amateur, have begun doing over the past few years. "Our workhorse salt here is kosher salt," he says.

Kosher salt tastes better than table salt, possibly because it has no additives but also because the irregularly shaped crystals dissolve more slowly. Also, as Martini says, it's easier to pick up a pinch of kosher salt and control the way it flows onto whatever you're seasoning than it is table salt, which tends to flow too quickly from your fingers.

Table salt, which is made free-flowing through the use of additives, is sold with added sodium iodide for nutritional reasons, but the flavor is very slightly apparent.

Sea salts are collected from places where sea water has evaporated, and there are many types and places that tout their salts. Sea salt usually retains a slight flavor of the sea and a little minerality. It can be purchased in fine or coarse grains.

Rock salt is less refined than other salts, and its best uses are as heat retainers, such as for a bed upon which to roast oysters or for adding to ice for the ice cream maker.

Some specialty salts can be purchased in stores or gourmet shops. Failing that, check online for spice suppliers. When using salts you have not used before, start slowly. Taste the salt before you use it, add a little at a time to your food and taste as you go along. Most natural salts (kosher, sea salts, table salt) won't taste wildly different.

Salt-Encrusted Beef Tenderloin

2{ cups all-purpose flour

1{ cups coarse salt

{ cup minced assorted fresh herbs (such as rosemary, oregano, thyme and Italian parsley)

2 tablespoons ground black pepper

2 large egg whites

{ cup plus 4 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1{-pound (thick-end) piece beef tenderloin, trimmed

Fleur de sel or other salt

Stir flour, coarse salt, { cup minced herbs and black pepper in large bowl to blend. Beat egg whites in medium bowl until foamy. Gradually pour \ cup plus 2 tablespoons water, then egg whites into flour mixture. Using wooden spoon, stir until mixture begins to clump together. Knead in bowl, adding more water by tablespoonfuls until firm, moist dough forms. Turn dough out onto floured surface. Knead until smooth, about 4 minutes. Form into ball. Cover dough with plastic; let rest at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef to skillet; brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer to plate.

Roll out dough on floured surface to 13- by 10-inch rectangle. Place beef in center of dough. Sprinkle \ cup minced herbs all over beef. Wrap dough tightly around beef; pinch edges firmly to seal. Place seam side up on baking sheet.

Roast until thermometer inserted through dough into center of beef registers 120 degrees for rare, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven; let beef stand at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour (beef will continue cooking, becoming medium-rare after about 30 minutes). Cut crust to open. Remove beef and cut into thick slices. Arrange on platter. Sprinkle lightly with fleur de sel or other salt.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Beef roasted in a kosher salt crust is tender and juicy. Once removed from the oven, the meat will remain hot for up to an hour.

Source: "Bon Appetit," March 1998.

Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano

and Black Pepper

2 teaspoons black peppercorns

{ pound spaghetti

2{ ounces (} cup plus 2 tablespoons) finely grated

Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus additional for serving (see note)

Toast peppercorns in a dry small skillet over moderately high heat, swirling skillet, until fragrant and peppercorns begin to jump, 2 to 3 minutes. Coarsely crush peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or wrap in a kitchen towel and press on peppercorns with bottom of a heavy skillet.

Cook spaghetti in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water until al dente.

Fill a large glass or ceramic bowl with some hot water to warm bowl. Just before spaghetti is finished cooking, drain bowl but do not dry.

Reserve { cup pasta cooking water, then drain pasta quickly in a colander (do not shake off excess water) and add to warm pasta bowl. Sprinkle } cup cheese and 3 tablespoons cooking water evenly over spaghetti and toss quickly. If pasta seems dry, toss with some additional cooking water.

Divide pasta among 4 plates, then sprinkle with pepper and 2 tablespoons cheese (total). Serve immediately with additional cheese on the side.

Makes 4 first-course servings.

Note: For this recipe, you need to grate the cheese with the ragged-edged holes of a box grater for ease of melting. Don't use the small teardrop-shaped holes or a rasp; your cheese will clump up in the bowl.

Source: "Gourmet," March 2003.

Types of salt

Celtic salt: Naturally evaporated sea salt harvested from Atlantic marshes in Brittany, France. Its flavor is somewhat mild, almost mellow.

Fleur de sel: The phrase means "flower of salt." This is the crystalized salt that occurs naturally on top of salt ponds when the weather is right. It is gathered by hand. It is opaque, with a hint of sweetness and minerality. It has a sparkling crunch and is used as a finishing salt.

Hawaiian algae salt: Sea salts from Hawaii that are colored either by iron oxide in the red clay of salt ponds or by clay being added to the salt. Use with mild-flavored food. Add as a color accent where appropriate, too.

Portuguese salt: Sea salt from salt pans, the southern coast of Portugal or from a salt spring in the village of Rio Maior.

Sel gris: Moist, coarse sea salt from the Atlantic Coast of France, gray in color. It may also be called Celtic gray sea salt.

Hawaiian smoked kai salt: A light brown, coarse salt smoked over kai wood. Use it on grilled meat and fish.

_ From Salt & Pepper by Sandra Cook, Sara Slavin and Deborah Jones (Chronicle Books, $18.95).

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