Meet the colorful peppercorns Essay

Salt’s cohort, black pepper, is the most familiar pepper on the
grocer’s shelf, sold ground or whole as peppercorns. Recently,
though, many other peppercorns have found their way into Western
markets. Each is peppery, yet each has its own properties. To use them
well, you need to know how they differ.



The characteristics of these peppers come from the plants that bear
them, the degree of maturity at harvest, and what preservation method is
used.

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Green, black, and white peppercorns are berries of the same
tropical vine–Piper nigrum–native to India.



The green are immature berries and taste mildest. They’re
sold freeze-dried or canned in brine. Brined peppercorns are tender to
bite–a little firmer than capers. Freeze-dried, they’re almost
hollow, with a brittle, papery shell.



Black peppercorns are berries harvested slightly underripe, then
dried until they shrivel. These have the most potent flavor.



White peppercorns are picked fully mature, dried, then decorticated
(hulls are removed). Their heat is about midway between green and
black.



Pink peppercorns come from a different vine (although berries of
Piper nigrum do go through a pink phase). These are from an ornamental
tree called California pepper (Schinus molle); they’re sold
freeze-dried or canned in brine and have mild heat and a sweet-hot
flowery flavor. Freeze-dried, their texture is even more papery than
that of freeze-dried green peppercorns. In brine, their color is more
drab, their texture about like that of capers. Like many foods, pink
peppercorns may cause allergic reactions and should be tried cautiously
at first.


Szechwan peppercorns, brown in color, are the dried berries of an
Asian shrub (Zanthoxylum piperitum). Look for these in Oriental
markets. They lend delicate heat and a distinctive perfume to the
Chinese seasoning blend, five spice.



Paradoxically, each pepper’s flavor is tasted most distinctly
if 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 of
tongue or baked ham. 1 small (about 3 lb.) ripe pineapple, peeled 1-1/2
cups sour cream 2 tablespoons canned or freeze-dried green or pink
peppercorns 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 garnish
with watercress. Makes l servings. Multicolored Pepper Pasta



Here’s a quick appetizer or entree. 1/2 to 1 teaspoon each
white and black peppercorns 1 teaspoon each Szechwan and freeze-dried or
canned pink and green peppercorns 1 cup each regular-strength chicken
broth, dry white wine, and whipping cream 4 quarts water 1 pound dried
vermicelli or capellini 1 cup (about 5 oz.) shredded or grated Parmesan
cheese



In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, combine peppercorns, broth, wine,
and cream. Boil over high heat, stirring, until reduced by half, about
15 minutes.



Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a 5- to 6-quart pan; cook pasta
in boiling water, uncovered, until tender to bite, about 9 minutes.
Drain and mound pasta in a warm serving bowl; pour pepper sauce over
pasta. Add 1/2 cup cheese; mix well. Offer remaining cheese to add
individually. 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 cup
white wine vinegar 2 to 3 tablespoons canned or freeze-dried pink or
green peppercorns 3 or 4 medium-size ripe avocados Cilantro (fresh
coriander) sprigs



Combine oil, vineger, and peppercorns. Cut avocados in half
lengthwise; 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 its
spiciness.



Skin, bone, and halve 3 whole chicken breasts (about 3 lb.). With
a flat-surfaced mallet, pound pieces between sheets of waxed paper or
plastic wrap to 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle each side of chicken with
1/4 teaspoon crushed black or white peppercorns or 3/4 teaspoon crushed
dried pink, green, or Szechwan peppercorns. Lightly pound pepper into
meat. (If made ahead, cover and chill up to overnight.)



In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter or
margarine over high heat. Add as many chicken pieces as will fit in
pan; cook, turning once, until white in center (cut to test), about 30
seconds per side. Lift out chicken and set on a warm platter; keep hot.
Cook remaining chicken. Add butter or margarine, 1 tablespoon at a
time, as needed.



To pan drippings, add 3/4 cup madeira or dry sherry. Scrape pan
bottom to loosen browned bits. Add 3/4 cup whipping cream and 1/2
teaspoon 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 first
course.



Cut 1-1/4 pounds scrubbed or peeled thin-skinned potatoes into
1/4-inch cubes. Put into a well-buttered 1-1/2- to 2-quart shallow
baking dish. Add 1 medium-size onion (finely chopped), 1-1/2 teaspoons
crushed white or black peppercorns, and 1 cup whipping cream; stir to
mix, and spread to level. Bake, uncovered, at 400[deg.] until potatoes
are 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; a
juicy pear and a glass of port will temper it. 1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder 1 cup sugar 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons black
peppercorns, coarsely crushed 1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine
Black peppercorns



In a food processor with a metal blade, or with a fork, blend
flour, baking powder, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the crushed pepper. In a
1- to 2-quart pan, stir butter over medium heat until it browns (stir
through white foam to test). Add to flour mixture and process until
dough forms compact ball, about 1-1/2 minutes. Or stir in butter with
fork, then work dough with your hands to form a smooth-textured ball.



Pinch off 1-inch pieces of dough and shape into balls. Arrange
balls, slightly apart, on an ungreased 12- by 15-inch baking sheet. Dip
the bottom of a glass into remaining sugar and press each ball gently to
1/2-inch thickness. Press a peppercorn into center of each.



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

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