"Never divorce the salt and pepper." I finally have a use for one of my grandmother's aphorisms. Last week I weighed in on salt, and good manners dictate that salt and pepper are passed together. Pepper is the yin to salt's yang; people use too much salt, and not enough pepper. And, unlike demon salt, pepper's great flavor doesn't come with health warnings.
Even a Minnesotan who asks "is it spicy" in that distinctive Upper-Midwest twangy-drawl, can tolerate the pep that pepper adds. Who doesn't like a little pep on his plate?
If you're not using freshly ground pepper you're missing out on its full flavor potential. To taste the difference there's a simple test you can do at home. Set out a pepper mill and a peppershaker, ideally one that you put on the table for holidays and company. How long has the pepper been in that shaker? For a lot of people the pepper dates to their first post-wedding dinner party. If the pepper is old it's got more in common with soot than spices. The pepper you grind will taste sharp and spicy compared the pre-ground pepper's dull, lukewarm blandness.
White pepper is basically black pepper that's been hulled. Because it's often finely ground a little goes a long way (assuming it's fresh). Traditionally, white pepper is used in white or pastel foods to avoid seeing little black specks. The French hate seeing those little flecks in their bisque. Modern food sensibilities are actually drawn to the texture and color contrast of black on white. Green and black peppercorns are picked before they're ripe. As they dry out they turn black. The green ones have been treated to keep them green. Red peppercorns are the ripened fruit of pepper plant. Red pepper (not peppercorns) is actually from a different plant. Red pepper is less peppery and a little tart.
Here are a few ways it spice up your cooking with pepper:
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- For peppery scrambled eggs I add a hefty dose (1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon) of finely ground black pepper to the butter in the skillet and swirl it for a few seconds before I add the eggs. I get a nice peppery kick sans Tabasco.
- Add a little pepper to your shortbread recipe. I make lemon-pepper shortbread, and the pepper brings a whole new dimension to the lemon.
- Add half a teaspoon of ground pepper to your pizza dough. It gives the unsauced crust around the edge a little pizzazz.
- Sliced ripe tomatoes become the perfect salad when served with a drizzle of tasty olive oil, some flakey salt, and a few grinds of the peppermill.
- A little pepper on sliced strawberries (with or without a drizzle of balsamic vinegar) is a nice touch. If the berries aren't sweet add a teaspoon of sugar too.
Pepper was once a luxury for the One Percent. Today, it's inexpensive and available for the other 99 percent of us. Lucky us.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.