Over the years I’ve made a culinary observation that the world is divided into salt people and pepper people, and rarely do they betray their loyalties. Salt is a mineral, pepper a spice — the most popular one throughout the globe. Once so valuable and revered, pepper was bestowed as a sacred offering to the gods, and even used as a currency along with a measure of one’s wealth. Powerful pepper spurred the spice trade and stimulated exploration of new lands.
Many Faces of Pepper
Black, green and white peppercorns are berries that grow in clusters similar to grapes, all on the same perennial flowering vine (Piper nigrum). The difference lies in the stages at which they are harvested. The green peppercorns are picked when unripe, and have a mild manner, about one-third the heat of black peppercorns. The latter are picked when half ripe, just at the cusp of turning red, then dried to a dark, rich color, endowing them with an exciting and pungent flavor.
The white ones, used predominantly in Asian cuisine, are picked when fully ripe, then soaked in a brine solution to remove the outside casing, stripping them of color, but imparting them with a strong fermented flavor, almost wine-like. Then there are pretty pink peppercorns that belong to another plant family related to ragweed.
Cayenne or red pepper is a different beast altogether, a cousin to bell pepper and a member of the nightshades. This tropical chile packs a punch in stews, soups, chilis and Italian dishes, while serving up a side of antioxidant. One word of warning: handle with kid gloves as this spice can burn your bare hands and eyes.
Shake Things Up
An attention grabber, especially when sprinkled on such surprising foods as hot cocoa or eggnog, a pinch of pepper also amps up vanilla pound cakes, chocolate mousses and rice puddings. For savories, the spice intensifies the robust flavors of lamb roasts and chicken with a pepper-garlic rub or marinade, seafood cocktails with a biting sauce, and grilled wild-caught fish with a peppercorn crust.
Add a layer of flavor to dips, tapenades and salads, especially the classics. Hail Caesar! Cook’s tip: Since pepper loses its flavor and aroma soon after it is ground, grind just before serving for both raw and cooked dishes.
Perks of Pepper
Black pepper stimulates taste buds, triggering the stomach’s secretion of acids, thereby dialing up digestion. It has also been found to prevent intestinal gas, weight gain (as it triggers decomposition of fat cells), and is a mighty antioxidant and antibacterial agent.
The spice provides a motherlode of minerals, including manganese, copper, calcium and iron, along with blood and bone boosting Vitamin K, Vitamin C and dietary fiber. So pepper up!
Grist for the Mill
Choose whole peppercorns over ground pepper to preserve the flavor integrity. In addition, the former has a Methuselah shelf life, the latter only about three months.
Store peppercorns in an airtight glass jar in a cool, dry, dark spot.
Select peppercorns without blemishes or dents, and having solid heft, not hollow.
Where possible, buy organic peppercorns that have not been irradiated, which robs the spice of its Vitamin C content.
American consumers purchase more than 1.3 million pounds of black pepper a year. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!
Sweet and Savory Moroccan Pepper Rub
(Use to enliven lamb, chicken, fish and veggie dishes.)
2 tablespoons of freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons of organic white sugar
2 tablespoons of organic brown sugar
2 tablespoons of cumin
2 tablespoons of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of ginger powder
2 tablespoons of dried cilantro
1 tablespoon of turmeric
Method: In a glass bowl combine all ingredients until well blended. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
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