This article recently appeared on The Spice and Tea Exchange blog on its website. The products featured are available through The Spice and Tea Exchange and worth seeking out; all spices are not equal and the high quality available through TSTE is unmatched by those avaialble at most grocery stores and gourmet shops in both aromatics and taste. Use discount code “donna 1” at checkout and receive 10% off your first order.
While some might argue salt is passé, the pepper side of the “salt and pepper” equation rarely gets a nod. That is until now. I guess you could say it’s due, but pepper for sure is about to have its “moment.” And that’s a good thing. There’s so much more to pepper than some black stuff you put on your food that makes you sneeze! But still, ask most, and they have very little idea of what pepper’s purpose is or that pepper comes in varieties with a variety of tastes and flavors.
Why pepper? The whole purpose of adding pepper along with your salt is, of course, to season. But, while salt tends to work on the flavors present in a dish, pepper works on your taste buds. It’s primary purpose is to inject a bit of heat which causes your pain receptors in your tongue to sit up and take notice of what’s on the palate, in case there’s something that needs be expectorated if it would hurt us (for example, eating a whole habanero chili pepper). Now, since pepper is consumed in such tiny quantities, rather than feeling pain on the tongue, our taste buds pay attention to the flavors the salt is pushing forward. That is why you always see “salt and pepper” together; they each have a precise and important part in tasting.
Which kind? Differing primarily in pungency (flavor) and intensity (heat), Black, Green and White Peppercorns are all used in the same way, but for slightly different purposes. Green peppercorns are picked before they are ripe and typically soaked in a brine before drying. Their flavor is slightly crisper and more herbal than black pepper. White peppercorns, on the other hand, come from the same plant as black, but the thin skin of fruit is removed from the seed (the wrinkled skin that you see on black peppercorns). This is usually done by soaking the pepper or placing in running water until the layer is removed. With a sharp, straight flavor, and generally more mellow than the pungent burn of the black peppercorn, it is commonly used in cream sauces or other applications where flecks of black pepper are not desired. Pink pepperberries, are different, and come from the Baies Rose plant. They are berries and picked when fully ripe. Their taste is milder, sweeter and fruitier than your standard peppercorn.
Then you have things like Tellicherry peppercorns and Szechuan peppercorns. Tellicherry is generally considered the finest of all black peppercorns and is grown on Mount Tellicherry in India. Left on the vine until full maturity, and growing larger than most other peppercorns, Tellicherry has a deep robust flavor with a hint of fruit. Szechuan peppercorns, also known as fagara, like pink pepperberries are not actual peppercorns. They come from the berries of a small, prickly ash tree grown in the Szechuan region of China. Szechuan peppercorns have a woody, spicy and delightful citrus aroma that give a tingling sensation to the tip of the tongue.
The easiest and best way I know to showcase the distinctive flavor of each is to grind some fresh pepper onto a well-made ice cream. Choose a fruit or nut ice cream for the Pink Pepperberries (strawberry or cherry ice cream – the kind with the chunks of fruit, please), or Szechuan Peppercorns (choose pecan and caramel, or even an orange sherbet and French vanilla mix). A French vanilla ice cream and Tellicherry pepper, or Smoked Tellicherry peppercorns, is a surprising combination and a very elegant dessert!
Or, you can try the recipe below. Created for a breakfast seminar, this spread is insanely delicious and worthy of eating straight out of the container with a spoon, but don’t. A hearty breakfast wholegrain bread, muffin, or bagel is a delicious platform. The pepper blend hides in the background until the sweet of the fruit and snap of the parmesan dissipate. Then it’s mellow, and spiced, warm and hearty. I let the spice sachet infuse throughout the entire cooking process, though you may choose to pull it out after the poaching for a less pronounced pepper flavor.
Recipe: Pear Pepper Parmesan Spread
1 1/2 tablespoons TSTE pink pepperberries (crushed with the back of a knife)
2 teaspoons TSTE Szechuan peppercorns (crushed with the back of a knife)
4 TSTE cloves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped TSTE crystallized ginger (substitute 1 teaspoon TSTE cut/sifted ginger)
5 pounds ripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
3 cups water
1 cup Marsala wine
1/4 cup light corn syrup1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 TSTE vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon TSTE Himalayan mineral salt
3/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese (or more to taste)*
1 tablespoon lemon juice
*Do not go for an aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese here; good old regular parmesan cheese works best.
Prepare the spice sachet by cutting 2 large squares from cheesecloth. Place one square on top of the other and place the spices into the center of the cheesecloth. Fold the corners up and secure the sachet with butcher twine. Place the sachet, pears, water, and Marsala into a tall heavy-bottom pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the fruit is very soft and falling apart when pierced with a knife, 40 to 60 minutes. Take the pot off the heat and let cool for about 10 minutes.
Carefully remove the sachet and squeeze any moisture from the sachet. Set aside, but do not discard. Puree the fruit mixture in a blender or food processor in batches until smooth. Wipe out the pot and pour in the puree. Taste and return the sachet to the pot if you are not satisfied with the peppery-warm spice flavor (keep in mind the flavor will intensify as the moisture evaporates from the puree). Add the corn syrup, brown sugar, vanilla bean, and salt. Stir to incorporate. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low or place on a simmer plate. Simmer, stirring often (make sure to scrape the bottom, corners, and sides of the pot), until the purée becomes thick and dark and the bubbles become slow blurps, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Take care to stir frequently toward the end of the cooking process to avoid scorching the mixture. (This is a messy process and a tall pot will serve you well here. Alternatively, use a splatter shield and take care to protect hands when stirring to prevent burns.) To test for doneness, spoon a dollop of the mixture onto a small plate and refrigerate for a minute or two; the mixture is done when it holds its shape with no water separating out at its edge.
Remove from heat, and then remove the vanilla bean (and the sachet, if needed. Set aside to cool; do not discard). Add in the parmesan cheese and stir until melted and well-incorporated. Taste. Adjust seasoning with lemon juice, the juices from the sachet, or additional parmesan.
Transfer the spread to a container (or several containers), stirring frequently while it cools. Cool to room temperature, and then store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
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