Magazine article Sunset

Meet the Colorful Peppercorns

Magazine article Sunset

Meet the Colorful Peppercorns

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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