Articles in Spices

Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Making a favorite summer dish at a friend’s house recently, I used oregano that he’d bought in his local supermarket. The baked chicken I made that day didn’t taste at all like the dish I make at home with the oregano (rigani) I bring back from Crete, or buy tied in large bunches from a Greek deli in London.

My friend had taken care to source a fine chicken and good olive oil, the wine was flowing, and everyone was having a great time. But, as far as I was concerned, the chicken didn’t taste right. I wondered whether everyone who’s enjoyed wonderful, rigani-fragranced foods in Greece has found that their dishes, once they were back home, didn’t taste quite as good. The attractive label of the herb I’d used from my friend’s shelf had declared it “wild oregano,” but was it really oregano?

What is oregano?

The answer, I discovered, is both yes and no. In the world of commercial food-supply (and, sometimes, seed-supply), “oregano” can denote any herb in the Origanum family, which contains a number of subspecies. And this is where the cook’s problem lies: Each of these subspecies has a distinct character, and not all give good results in the kitchen.

True Greek oregano, or rigani, goes by the Latin name of origanum vulgare hirtum (or O. heracleoticum). Because the plant has more oil glands in its highly aromatic, dark-green leaves, rigani has a stronger flavor than common oregano — so strong that, eaten fresh, it can make your tongue tingle. This is the reason dried, not fresh, Greek oregano is used in the kitchen, an uncommon example of a dried herb being a better culinary choice than a fresh one. My friend had bought common oregano (origanum vulgare), a less flavorful subspecies, and the one most frequently found on the supermarket or grocery store shelf.

What’s in a name?

There’s some disagreement as to the origin of the word “oregano”: One source suggests that it’s based on the Greek word for acrid (some subspecies of oregano can taste bitter); another states that its Latin name derives from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). If you’ve ever walked in the Greek foothills, you’ll know that this pungent herb truly is a “joy of the mountains,” covering the rocky land with magnificent abandon and perfuming the warm air with its strong, sweet scent. Rigani’s presence there dates at least to Greek antiquity, when the ancients encouraged its growth in the mountain grazing lands to improve the flavor of their goats and sheep.

The doctors of antiquity too knew the value of rigani. Hippocrates used its oil as an antiseptic and its tincture for his patients’ stomach and respiratory problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that the polyphenols and flavonoids in Greek oregano do indeed have strong health-giving properties, including, it is believed, some protection against the norovirus and the ability to block an enzyme associated with diabetes.

In the kitchen

For the Greek cook, right up until the days of refrigeration and antibiotics, rigani was invaluable as a preservative and a deterrent to flies. Out of these practical considerations came a large repertoire of marvelous dishes imbued with the taste and aroma of the “joy of the mountains.”

For flavor and beauty, rigani’s tiny, white flowers are especially prized. So too are the meat and milk of goats and sheep that feed off the summer-flowering herb, as well as foraging rabbits and other small game. Rigani, flowers or leaves,  flavors grills, oven-bakes, salads, sauces, and bean dishes like no other herb. In the village kitchen it’s measured in handfuls, not with a spoon. This provides a special pleasure for the cook: with finger and thumb, gently rub the rigani in your palm to lightly bruise it, before adding it to your dish. You’ll be releasing some of the herb’s oil and its pungent, lively aroma will lift your spirits as well as perfume your kitchen.

A few years ago, before both “wild” and “Greek” became food-marketing buzzwords, “wild oregano” bought outside of Greece was usually rigani. This isn’t always true today, with a commercial supply chain that’s confused and confusing. The most promising place to find real Greek oregano is in a store that you know takes sourcing ingredients seriously, or in a Greek or Middle Eastern deli where, late summer, you may even be lucky enough to find a large bunch of this fragrant herb that’s been gathered while in flower.

Rigani-Baked Chicken

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Note If you are using chicken pieces, boil the potatoes for 10 minutes before arranging in the baking dish.

Ingredients

  • One 4- to 5-pound chicken, whole or cut into serving pieces; remove skin and excess fat
  • Juice of 1½ lemons
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
  • ½ tablespoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
  • 2 pounds of potatoes suitable for baking, cut into similar-size pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled), lightly crushed
  • A handful (or 4 tablespoons) rigani (dried Greek oregano), crumbled
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1½ to 2 cups chicken stock, as required
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (for serving)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 375 F (190 C, or Gas Mark 5).
  2. Rub the chicken with the juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the salt.
  3. Place the chicken (or arrange the pieces) in a deep, heavy baking dish and surround with the potatoes and garlic in a single layer. Sprinkle the chicken with the rigani, pepper, bay leaves, and the remaining olive oil, and dot with the butter.
  4. Add half the stock, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C or Gas Mark 4) and continue baking until cooked through but still tender – about 1¼ hour longer for a whole chicken, 40 minutes longer for chicken pieces. Baste the chicken and potatoes frequently, adding more stock to the dish if necessary.
  5. Transfer the chicken, potatoes, and garlic to a serving platter and keep warm.
  6. Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan, remove the fat with a spoon, and add any remaining stock. If there is more than about 1 ½ cups of liquid, reduce it by rapid boiling. Combine the mustard, honey, and half the remaining lemon juice and stir into the sauce. Add salt, pepper, and remaining lemon juice to taste, and heat to warm.
  7. Pour sauce over the chicken and potatoes just to moisten, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Main photo: Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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Myanmar's salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

We first discovered the food of Myanmar as armchair cooks intrigued by a cuisine, described by Mi Mi Khaing in “Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way” as “the best of Chinese and Indian cooking, but with a distinctive flair all its own.” After repeated trips to Myanmar, however, we would explain Burmese food differently: Indian lacking spice, Thai without fiery chili, similar to Chinese only via its stir fries, or perhaps a shared Yunnan influence with skewered and grilled pub fare. In other words, it’s unlike any other and deliciously unique.

For 20 years we traveled throughout Myanmar, later hosting food tours there, and eventually made a home in Asia. And we’ve never looked back.

We’ve tasted and tested almost every Burmese dish imaginable, supping with regional and capital cooks and learning in the most humble kitchens and 5-star sculleries alike.

Myanmar’s cuisine is a perfect fit for Americans. Granted, chili aficionados here will claim that hot flavors are passionately loved by all, but the general American palate seems drawn to the comforting, non-assertive tastes of Burmese dishes. There, the chili is long and mild, closer to a paprika, akin to the capsicums used in neighboring Yunnan province. Curcumin-rich Alleppey turmeric is a principal spice, while masala is the exception rather than the rule. And simple ground star anise acts as the “curry” seasoning for pork. Even salads — with the notable exception of Burmese Lemon Salad and renowned Pickled Tea Leaf La Phet — are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Vegetables and salads are commonly bound and melded with either besan (chickpea) flour or ground peanuts — depending on the regional crop.

The flavor of Burmese recipes are easy to recreate by merely — and gently — slow-frying onion, garlic and ginger in oil, then using the resulting emollient as a ubiquitous flavoring essence —  both in curries and salads. Better yet, ingredients are easy to find in the United States, more so if there’s an Indian grocery in your neighborhood.

From armchair to actual traveler, our quest for authentic Burmese cookery continues. We find it as exciting as exploring the country’s awe-inspiring sites — from ancient Bagan to imperial Mandalay, to the temples and caves and floating islands of Inle Lake. The image of awakening to the golden rock, Kyeik Hti Yoe, sitting above the clouds will always linger in our minds, as will the vision of the volcanic plug, Mount Popa, with its golden temples crowning the top like a fairyland. But we equally savor memories of the simple peppery stocks of the country’s Rakhine seafood stew.

Why Myanmar? Why Burmese?

Although Burma is the name commonly used by Anglo-Westerners, Myanmar is the term used by locals. “Burma” and “Burman” reflects the Bamar ethnic majority, not its other cultural groups. However, our recently released The Burma Cookbook celebrates all this nation’s diversity — historic and ethnic. We chose the title not as a political statement, but because our cookbook includes dishes of colonial Burma, as well as contemporary Myanmar. So you’ll  find a recipe for Lobster Thermidor served at The Strand hotel for more than a century, but also a biryani rice that reflects the country’s Indian heritage, along with a “bachelor” chicken curry that can be traced back to larrikin lads absconding with a farmyard chicken and herbs grasped from a neighbor’s garden.

Main photo: Myanmar’s salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

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Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry

Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.

It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.

Rosewater and saffron are relatively easy to find at gourmet shops or Middle Eastern markets. The clove, nutmeg and cinnamon in this dish are more familiar.

You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.

Supple dates and slivered almonds

Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.

They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.

Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.

Richly indulgent

These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.

Perfumed Dates

Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people

Ingredients

7 or 8 ounces of dates

About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds

1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups

¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater

5 to 8 threads saffron

Musk

½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor

Dash cinnamon

Dash clove

Dash nutmeg

Directions

1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.

2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.

3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.

Allow the dates to cool in the honey.

4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.

5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.

Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry

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Gourmet flavored popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

It’s Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. Some years required black-tie starters like Champagne and oysters. Other years, California-made cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog and the wonderfully stinky Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery competed for Best Cheese in a Supporting Role. But this year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.

Of course, because it’s the Oscars, it couldn’t be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers’ market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.

First, you must be willing to set aside the iconic melted butter and find the very best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to dress the hot kernels. EVOO’s intense flavor will lend an earthy, grassy, herbal flavor that just belongs with farm-grown popcorn.

Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It’s got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.

Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.

Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn

Serves 4

 Ingredients

½ cup popcorn kernels

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Sea salt, to taste

Flavoring suggestions:

Grated hard or semi-hard cheese

Aleppo or Marash chili pepper

Cocoa powder mixed with sugar

Cinnamon

Smoked paprika

Saffron

Freshly ground peppercorns

Directions

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.

2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.

3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.

4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.

Top photo: Spiced popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry

Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.

I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.

Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.

I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.

Pepper exploration

This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.

That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.

Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing. Credit: Lynne Curry

Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing. Credit: Lynne Curry

Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.

Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.

I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.

Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses

In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.

It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.

Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing

Serves 4

Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.

Ingredients

For the dressing:

Makes 2 cups

1 cup sour cream

¾ cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup finely chopped chives

For the steak salad:

1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns

1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

6 cups mixed salad greens

1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano

Directions

For the dressing:

1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.

If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.

For the steak salad:

1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.

2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.

For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)

3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.

Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Peppercorn array. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

If your kitchen houses an old jar of ground black pepper, do me a favor and throw it out. I’m on a campaign to start the New Year fresh, and my resolution includes discarding all outdated spices and sundries lurking in the back of the pantry. This applies to all spices, from aniseed to za’atar, but ground pepper is at the top of my list.

Pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world, but anyone who’s using the pre-ground stuff is missing out on its true intensity of flavor. The world’s best chefs have always known that pepper loses flavor when added early in the cooking process. And because the peppercorns’ essential oils aren’t released until they are ground, a fresh grind of peppercorns can elevate many dishes with the perfect finishing touch.

When salt showed up on culinary “hot” lists and salt tastings appeared on menus as starter courses, I wondered why its best-paired partner didn’t get the same respect. After all, pepper has been called the master spice or king of spices for centuries. But while you can easily find several varieties of salt in the grocery aisle, even many culinary cognoscenti don’t know much about peppercorn varieties beyond Tellicherry or Malabar. But the range of flavor that exists is just stunning.

Armed with a collection of 14 peppercorn types from around the world, I gathered a few fearless friends for a tasting party. Countries of peppercorn origin were Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar and Vietnam, plus the French island of Réunion. Colors included creamy white, soft grey-green, rose, rust red and a dark black-brown. My guests doubted that they’d really notice a difference, but the exercise proved surprisingly revealing.

A technique for a pepper tasting party

Following a classic technique for wine tasting, we used sight to judge size, finish and color; next, a heady sniff revealed a wide array of complex aromas and bouquets from smoky and spicy to dried fruit to sherry. Finally, we completed the exercise by crunching away to determine taste, length of finish and heat index. As I had learned in olive oil tastings, it’s important to be prepared with coffee beans (a whiff of coffee beans will clear your sinuses of residual aromas), green apple slices (to clear your palate between tastings) and plenty of water.

The peppercorns showed off enormous variations in taste profiles. My two favorites were a green peppercorn from Brazil that smelled like licorice and cardamom and tasted of fresh, slightly spicy herbs; and a Sarawak black from Malaysia that was smoky, spicy and tasted a bit like mushrooms and cedar. Two other varieties that were universally liked were not truly peppercorns, but similar enough to join the roster: the sweet, floral, fruity flavor of rose mastic berries from the island of Réunion and the perfumed, sweet clove and apricot flavor of Sichuan pepper from China.

At the beginning of the year, it just feels right to clean the cupboards and start fresh. This year, I’ll be indulging in ingredients I’ve never used before and kitchen experiments I’ve never tried. “Out with the old, and in with the new” may be an overused cliché, but in my pantry it’s going to start with spices — and playing with peppercorns will be a great way to begin.

Know what’s in your seasoning

If you haven’t heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a study focusing on ground spices as carriers of the microbial pathogen salmonella. While pepper was not one of the major offenders, it does have a long history of being adulterated with cheaper spices, dirt, hulls and harvesting scraps.

A bowl of black peppercorns

Malabar peppercorns. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

There are two simple solutions to ensuring that the pepper you use is pure and safe. Begin by only buying whole peppercorns because there is little chance that an unscrupulous purveyor can dilute them with dirt, debris and other cheap ground spices. The website Pepper-Passion is an excellent online resource for a wide variety of peppercorns.

When you buy whole peppercorns, you can see exactly what’s in the jar and even sort through them to remove any dirt, twigs and rocks that might remain. Next, take a few minutes to roast your peppercorns either in a 325 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or in a pan over medium heat for 5 minutes to kill any unwanted microbial pathogens hitching a ride on the spice. It takes only 165 F of heat to kill the bacteria.

Top photo: A variety of peppercorns from around the world. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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