Pepping Things Up with Pepper
The most common ingredients used to flavor food are salt and pepper, with black pepper being the world’s most traded spice. Every front line in a fine dining restaurant will have a salt cellar or bowl of these two ingredients already mixed for a quick grab so they can toss a pinch in to most dishes cooked. But what is it that is so special about these two ubiquitous items, and why are they used so much?
In the next few weeks, my articles will focus on common ingredients, and how to use them best. This week’s focus is on the humble black pepper.
Piper nigrum is a flowering vine from which we get pepper, which is typically dried prior to use. The peppercorn when dried, is approximately 0.20 inches in diameter and black. Peppercorns are dark red when fully mature, however peppercorns come in green as well. Green peppercorns are simple immature fruits, but don’t tell them that to their face; they start “acting out.”
Two of the most common forms of pepper readily available are, of course, black and white pepper. White pepper is derived from black pepper by removing the outside (and most flavorful) part of the pepper and grinding the center of the peppercorn. Black peppercorns are produced from the green fruit of the pepper plant. They are cooked in hot water, to prepare them for drying. After that, the peppercorns are dried for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into the familiar thin wrinkled black layer.
So, beside the difference in color what’s the difference between ground black peppercorn and ground white pepper. The black is typically spicier than white peppercorn and has a more floral or pungent characteristic. White pepper is commonly used in sauces where you don’t want to see black flecks in an light colored sauce. White ground pepper is typically ground finer than black pepper.
Another important thing to note is that fresh cracked black pepper has a much fuller flavor than pre-ground black pepper. This is why you want to use fresh cracked black pepper. Another reason to use fresh is that some spice manufacturers add flour to their seasonings and spices to prevent caking in their containers. For those on a gluten-free diet, this is an important distinction. When using whole peppercorns, toast them prior to use to get the most out of them. Simply put some in a dry pan over a medium-high heat; when you see them start to smoke and “dance” in the pan, immediately take them off the heat and pour them into a room temperature pan to quickly cool. Otherwise, they may burn.
Here is one of my favorite soups where pepper is the star. It is my traditional Chinese Hot and Sour Soup. Makes 1 gallon.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon, ginger, minced
½ bu. Scallion, thinly sliced
8 ounces ground pork butt
½ cup Black fungus, re-hydrated, julienned
½ cup Lily bud, re-hydrated, 1-inch length
3 cups, Napa cabbage, chiffonade
1 gal, chicken stock
1 cup, rice wine vinegar (more if needed)
½ cup, Gluten-free Tamari
2 tablespoons, FRESH ground black pepper
3, eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons Dark sesame oil
½ pound, Firm tofu
1 tablespoon, sea or Kosher salt (if needed)
1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and scallions and stir-fry until aromatic.
2. Add the pork and stir-fry until the pork is cooked.
3. Add black fungus and lily buds and continue to stir-fry until tender.
4. Stir in the stock, vinegar, Tamari, and pepper and bring to a boil.
5. Slowly add the cornstarch slurry to the boiling soup and stir constantly until the soup obtains a medium-thick consistency.
6. Beat eggs with the sesame oil until emulsified. Reduce heat to a simmer and slowly add eggs to the soup as an “egg drop.”
7. Add tofu and cabbage and stir to combine.
8. Keep hot but do not allow to boil.
9. Garnish with scallions as service.
Note: Vinegar loses its acidity the longer you keep this dish hot. Therefore, you may need to make subsequent additions of vinegar if held at serving temperatures for long periods.
This is a great soup to enjoy during the cold months. Feel free to add more pepper if you like things on the spicy side.
Chef David Hall, CGC
Thyme for a Chef, LLC