Meet the colorful peppercorns Essay

Salt’s cohort, black pepper, is the most familiar pepper on thegrocer’s shelf, sold ground or whole as peppercorns. Recently,though, many other peppercorns have found their way into Westernmarkets. Each is peppery, yet each has its own properties. To use themwell, you need to know how they differ. The characteristics of these peppers come from the plants that bearthem, the degree of maturity at harvest, and what preservation method isused.

Green, black, and white peppercorns are berries of the sametropical vine–Piper nigrum–native to India. The green are immature berries and taste mildest. They’resold freeze-dried or canned in brine. Brined peppercorns are tender tobite–a little firmer than capers. Freeze-dried, they’re almosthollow, with a brittle, papery shell. Black peppercorns are berries harvested slightly underripe, thendried until they shrivel. These have the most potent flavor.

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White peppercorns are picked fully mature, dried, then decorticated(hulls are removed). Their heat is about midway between green andblack. Pink peppercorns come from a different vine (although berries ofPiper nigrum do go through a pink phase). These are from an ornamentaltree called California pepper (Schinus molle); they’re soldfreeze-dried or canned in brine and have mild heat and a sweet-hotflowery flavor. Freeze-dried, their texture is even more papery thanthat of freeze-dried green peppercorns. In brine, their color is moredrab, their texture about like that of capers.

Like many foods, pinkpeppercorns may cause allergic reactions and should be tried cautiouslyat first. Szechwan peppercorns, brown in color, are the dried berries of anAsian shrub (Zanthoxylum piperitum). Look for these in Orientalmarkets. They lend delicate heat and a distinctive perfume to theChinese seasoning blend, five spice. Paradoxically, each pepper’s flavor is tasted most distinctlyif you slightly subdue its potency, as these recipes do–with coolness,cream, neutral flavor accompaniments, even complementary sweetness.Pineapple with Sour Cream, Colored Pepper, and Honey Serve as a first course, or for lunch with tiny sandwiches oftongue or baked ham. 1 small (about 3 lb.

) ripe pineapple, peeled 1-1/2cups sour cream 2 tablespoons canned or freeze-dried green or pinkpeppercorns 1/4 cup mild honey Watercress or mint sprigs Cut pineapple crosswise into 18 slices. To assemble each salad,arrange 3 slices of fruit on a salad plate, top with 1/4 cup sour cream,and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon pepper. Drizzle with honey and garnishwith watercress. Makes l servings.

Multicolored Pepper Pasta Here’s a quick appetizer or entree. 1/2 to 1 teaspoon eachwhite and black peppercorns 1 teaspoon each Szechwan and freeze-dried orcanned pink and green peppercorns 1 cup each regular-strength chickenbroth, dry white wine, and whipping cream 4 quarts water 1 pound driedvermicelli or capellini 1 cup (about 5 oz.) shredded or grated Parmesancheese In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, combine peppercorns, broth, wine,and cream. Boil over high heat, stirring, until reduced by half, about15 minutes. Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a 5- to 6-quart pan; cook pastain boiling water, uncovered, until tender to bite, about 9 minutes.Drain and mound pasta in a warm serving bowl; pour pepper sauce overpasta.

Add 1/2 cup cheese; mix well. Offer remaining cheese to addindividually. Serves 4 or 5 as an entree, 7 or 8 as an appetizer.Avocado with Pastel Pepper This makes and elegant dinner opening. 1/2 cup salad oil 1/4 cupwhite wine vinegar 2 to 3 tablespoons canned or freeze-dried pink orgreen peppercorns 3 or 4 medium-size ripe avocados Cilantro (freshcoriander) sprigs Combine oil, vineger, and peppercorns. Cut avocados in halflengthwise; remove pits.

Set avocados on salad plates, pit side up.Spoon dressing evenly into wells and over cut surface of avocados;garnish with cilantro. Serves 6 or 8.

Chicken Breasts au Poivre Sauteeing takes some heat out of pepper and emphasizes itsspiciness. Skin, bone, and halve 3 whole chicken breasts (about 3 lb.). Witha flat-surfaced mallet, pound pieces between sheets of waxed paper orplastic wrap to 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle each side of chicken with1/4 teaspoon crushed black or white peppercorns or 3/4 teaspoon crusheddried pink, green, or Szechwan peppercorns. Lightly pound pepper intomeat. (If made ahead, cover and chill up to overnight.

) In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter ormargarine over high heat. Add as many chicken pieces as will fit inpan; cook, turning once, until white in center (cut to test), about 30seconds per side. Lift out chicken and set on a warm platter; keep hot.Cook remaining chicken.

Add butter or margarine, 1 tablespoon at atime, as needed. To pan drippings, add 3/4 cup madeira or dry sherry. Scrape panbottom to loosen browned bits. Add 3/4 cup whipping cream and 1/2teaspoon crushed dried rosemary. Boil, stirring, until reduced by half.Pour over chicken.

Serves 6. Potato and Pepper Casserole Delicious with a plain roast, this could also be served as a firstcourse. Cut 1-1/4 pounds scrubbed or peeled thin-skinned potatoes into1/4-inch cubes. Put into a well-buttered 1-1/2- to 2-quart shallowbaking dish. Add 1 medium-size onion (finely chopped), 1-1/2 teaspoonscrushed white or black peppercorns, and 1 cup whipping cream; stir tomix, and spread to level.

Bake, uncovered, at 400[deg.] until potatoesare soft enough to mash and are beginning to brown on top, about 1 hour.Add salt to taste.

Serves 4 to 6. Black Pepper Cookies The pepper’s hot taste builds as you nibble the cookies; ajuicy pear and a glass of port will temper it. 1 cup all-purpose flour1 teaspoon baking powder 1 cup sugar 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons blackpeppercorns, coarsely crushed 1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarineBlack peppercorns In a food processor with a metal blade, or with a fork, blendflour, baking powder, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the crushed pepper. In a1- to 2-quart pan, stir butter over medium heat until it browns (stirthrough white foam to test). Add to flour mixture and process untildough forms compact ball, about 1-1/2 minutes.

Or stir in butter withfork, then work dough with your hands to form a smooth-textured ball. Pinch off 1-inch pieces of dough and shape into balls. Arrangeballs, slightly apart, on an ungreased 12- by 15-inch baking sheet. Dipthe bottom of a glass into remaining sugar and press each ball gently to1/2-inch thickness. Press a peppercorn into center of each.

Bake on the lowest rack of a 300[deg.] oven until browned on thebottom, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to coolcompletely. Serve, or store airtight up to 3 days, freeze to storelonger. Makes about i dozen.

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