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Pepper: The Rodney Dangerfield Of Spices

Updated on June 29, 2010

If Christopher Columbus could see us now! He risked his life to find a shortcut to India, in part so black pepper could be shipped back to Europe for less than the exorbitant price it was then commanding. And now, more than 500 years later, in most kitchens black pepper sits in its pepper mill, and gets no respect.

To say that pepper gets no respect is not to say it isn't used. Sure, it often gets picked up and ground into whatever's cooking, but it's seldom given the attention that sexier spices such as cumin and ginger accept as their due. But it's hard to find pepper's equal for flavor, zest, and overall usefulness.

Black, white, and green peppercorns are all the same thing (the berry of the Piper nigrum plant), they're just picked and processed differently. Black pepper has the strongest flavor; it's picked just before the berries ripen, and then dried. White pepper is picked later, and the outer coating is removed, leaving the milder white inner berry. Green peppercorns are picked unripe, and usually preserved in brine or vinegar.

Pepper has been an important player on the culinary scene for almost 3,000 years. It's been so valuable that, at various times, it's been used as currency. It's also been a symbol of wealth and power, a kind of medieval equivalent of the SUV. Take that, cumin and ginger!

If you have a standard twist-top pepper mill, trying to glean large quantities from it may leave you with a sense of frustration and an acute case of carpal tunnel syndrome. Find a pepper mill that has a comfortable, efficient mechanism - I like the kind that cranks.

  • Grill or roast sliced peaches, nectarines, or strawberries coated with balsamic vinegar and black pepper. Add sugar when using tart fruits.
  • Use the combination of balsamic vinegar and black pepper as a sauce for pork or poultry. Add to onions and chicken stock, and thicken with a roux.
  • Try a traditional steak au poivre by pan-frying shell or rib-eye steaks that are generously coated with cracked black pepper and a little salt.
  • Add green peppercorns to a fruit sauce for lamb, duck, or pork.
  • Make an all-purpose sauce for poultry or beef with a fortified wine (sherry, Madeira, port), some beef or chicken stock, a little brown sugar, and cracked green peppercorns.
  • Use green peppercorns instead of black ones in a salad vinaigrette.
  • Add whole peppercorns when making stock, and don't be afraid to add them to spicy soups or sauces where they will be eaten whole.
  • When you poach pears in red wine, add peppercorns and star anise.

So take a moment this Columbus Day to let the great explorer know that we appreciate his efforts, even if he didn't actually discover pepper.

Steak au Poivre

2 filet mignon, about 6 ounces each and 1-1/2 inches thick
salt
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup + 1 teaspoon Cognac
3/4 cup heavy cream

1. Remove filets from the fridge about 30-60 minutes prior to cooking. Season each side with salt.

2. With mortar and pestle, crush the peppercorns to a 'coarse' consistency. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle you can use the back of a cast iron skillet. Just place the peppercorns on a wooden cutting board and gently roll the skillet over them to crush.) Spread the crushed pepper on a plate and press each side of the steak onto it until evenly coated.

3. In a medium pan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. As soon as the fat starts to smoke and turn a golden color, gently add the steaks to the skillet. For a medium-rare finish, cook each side for four minutes. Once cooked, take out the steaks and allow to rest under a foil tent. Pour the excess fat from the pan but leave a thin layer coating the bottom.

4. Off the heat, add 1/4 cup of the Cognac to the skillet ignite with a firestick or long match. Allow the flame to die. Place the pan back over medium heat and pour in the cream. Bring to a boil and whisk continuously until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the last teaspoon of Cognac and season with salt. Place steaks back in the skillet, spoon the hot sauce over and then serve.

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