Friday, 12 May 2006
The Spice is Right II: Sweet Or Savory? – black pepper (Piper nigrum)
click on image for larger view of black pepper
Barbara (Tigers and Strawberries) set a very difficult task with
The Spice is Right II. 1 What a dilemma.
We use almost every ‘sweet’ spice that I could think of in savoury dishes. Many of the ‘savoury’ spices we use seemed as if they would fit easily into sweet dishes. And we use lots and lots of different spices in our house.
But this was not always the case. When I was growing up, the only spices that I was really familiar with were salt, pepper, mustard (Keene’s powdered yellow), cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cardamom. Mom bought salt in a box and little bottles or tins of (already ground) black pepper, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice.
The only unground spice I saw before I was well into my teens was cardamom, which was purchased to make vinarterta. Some time in November, Mom would bring home a little jar filled stark white pods of cardamom. We loved to crack open to reveal the beautiful ebony coloured jewels inside. And the lovely aroma! And Mom would grind the fragrant seeds in a little barrel shaped grinder that was reserved just for cardamom. But that is another story for another time….
Salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice were used in both sweet and savoury dishes – even in our whitebread household. (Cardamom was for only one thing: vinarterta.) Mustard and black pepper were reserved for savoury dishes. So that is how I narrowed my choice down to two spices: mustard or black pepper, using one of those usually savoury spices in a sweet dish.
Try as I might, I couldn’t (and still can’t) quite wrap my mind around how mustard might be used in a sweet dish (although someone has probably come up with one…) But pepper! I know that pepper works in sweet dishes! So finally. The die was cast. Black pepper it was.
As a matter of course, most all of us grind black pepper over almost all of our savoury dishes. Even though pepper is still an imported spice for a large part of the world. Native to Malabar in South India, pepper is now grown in South-East Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, East and West Indies and Brazil. According to Gernot Katzer,
India and Indonesia […] account for about 50% of the whole production volume.
Very few of us can grow our own peppercorns. (No big surprise that none of my plant books had any tips on growing this spice that is native to south India.)
Do I even need to attempt to describe the wonderful flavour of black pepper? Except that freshly ground black pepper tastes infinitely better than pre-ground tinned pepper that has been sitting on a dusty shelf for who knows how long. And it is definitely worthwhile to purchase a really good pepper grinder. Our best and favourite one is the Pugeot in the photograph below.
But I wonder how many of us have discovered the wonders of black pepper on fresh strawberries! Because as far as I’m concerned, this is the only way to serve strawberries. (How apropos to serve strawberries for an event hosted by Barbara of ‘Tigers and Strawberries’.)
And that brings me to my next problem. I had the dish in mind and easy access to all the ingredients except the strawberries. All we have are pictures of strawberries. 2
click on images for larger views
Sure, there are plenty of real strawberries to be had on the fruit stands. Brilliantly red, woody, blank tasting California strawberries. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that California strawberries are fabulous – in California. But trust me, they might look good here; they might even smell like good strawberries; but in actuality, they’re pretty dreadful.
I simply refuse to lay out the stack of cash required to buy a small box of fruit that has been picked far too early. Even if the eat local [sic] challenge weren’t taking place this month. I mean really. What could be more disappointing than an unripened strawberry? So we will have to wait.
Fresh, ripe, sweet strawberries dipped in a little bit of lemon juice and sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper is wonderful. I was introduced to this one early summer day soon after I had moved here to Toronto. I was dubious at first, but I had to try it. Initially, I was going to have one strawberry/lemon/pepper combination to be polite. My plan was then to just sneak strawberries out of the bowl and “forget” to add the lemon juice and pepper. But… well, you know. Or you will once you’ve tried it.
And then once you know that is divine and you think you’ve already gone to Heaven, you’ll realize that you were just going up the stairs to Heaven’s Gate when you taste strawberries, balsamic vinegar and black pepper. I know I have written about this combination before but it really does bear repeating:
Fresh Strawberries with Creamy Cream Cheese Topping
- ripe local strawberries
- black pepper
- balsamic vinegar
- cream cheese
- 10% cream to loosen the cream cheese
- demerrara sugar, to taste
- Wash strawberries well. Hull them and cut them in half.
- Put strawberries in a bowl and drizzle some (not too much) balsamic vinegar over top. Gently stir the strawberries to make sure all surfaces have been coated with vinegar. Coarsely grind black pepper over top. Set bowl aside in the fridge for an hour or so.
- Mash the cream cheese to soften it.
- Add some cream and demerrara (or regular brown) sugar. Mix well til smooth.
Serve the cream mixture over the strawberries. Add a sprig of mint or lemonbalm as a garnish.
So I hope I’ll be forgiven that I’m not actually preparing the dish I’ve described for “The Spice is Right #2 – Sweet Or Savory?”. 3 But I’ve got to say that I almost can’t wait for June when Ontario strawberries will become available! Please remind me not to give in to the enticement of those boxes of perfect looking huge California strawberries beckoning to me now.
From A Culinary Guide to Herbs, Spices and Flavourings by Boxer, Innes, Parry-Crooke and Essen:
Pepper is undoubtedly the most familiar and indispensible of all cooking spices in the West.
[Black pepper is] the most widely traded spice in the world
From Gernot Katzer’s pages:
In spite of its astronomical price, pepper […] became, in the Early Middle Ages, a status symbol of fine cookery.
And from Plant Cultures:
By the Middle Ages, […] Peppercorns were very expensive and were accepted in lieu of money in dowries, taxes and rents.
Black pepper is […] is consumed throughout the world more than any other spice,
Please read more online about black pepper here:
- Wikipedia – Black pepper
- Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages: Pepper (Piper nigrum, Black Pepper)
- Plants and Fungi at Kew (was ‘Plant Cultures’), Piper nigrum (black pepper)
Even though it is ubiquitous now, pepper is not particularly inexpensive, as spices go. We buy pepper in largish packets in IndiaTown (our favourite store is ‘Kohinoor’ on the north side of Gerrard near Coxwell) The pepper is good quality and considerably less expensive than little jars of peppercorns in the supermarket.