Week 2: Peppercorns

This week I read about and explored pepper, the constant companion to salt on many tables around the globe. The sneezy spice. The best flavoring to add to almost any savory dish.

My birthday’s at the end of May, so my sister bought me A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine as a gift. There are numerous historical references to specific spices and flavorings as used by ancient peoples, through the Renaissance, and right up to today. Since pepper has almost always been an important seasoning, the book lists a few interesting points regarding its history and use. For example, in 1606 a fellow named Joseph Duchesne wrote :

“The great piquant or piercing quality of pepper, which one perceives in the taste and burning sensation it leaves on the tongue stems from what chemists call an aronic slat, which is subtle and penetrating and therefore cuts into, attenuates, and dissolves the tartars and viscidities of the stomach and other parts, and this is why the ancients found it to be good for the treatment of quartian fevers and various other maladies.”

In other words, pepper is good for digestion.

“Pepper, the favorite seasoning of the Roman soldiers, also became very popular among the Germanic troops who joined the ranks of the Roman army. When Alaric, king of the Goths, besieged Rome in 408, he demanded as his price for sparing the city a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pound of silver [...] and 3,000 pounds of pepper.”

So, pepper was valuable. Finally,

“One of the things that distinguished the delicate cooking of La Varenne and Bonnefons from their French predecessors and their Italian, English, Spanish, and Central European contemporaries is that few of their recipes for savory ingredients called for sugar or spices other than black pepper.”

Even the French like pepper with their food, so there’s no way you’re leaving pepper out of the kitchen.

Enough with history, on to the Dinner Menu!

  • Steak au Poivre
  • Spinach with cream
  • Fried potatoes
  • Pavlova with fruit and cream

I was the most excited about the Poivre sauce for the steak, as it involved lighting cognac on fire. Sadly, in spite of almost 10 minutes of conversational planning with Mike, we had an epic failure. After 5 matches and much dancing about and shouting, we were unable to light the cognac. Quite surprising, as we were using an iron pot, and iron retains heat very well. I’m happy to report that even when you fail to actually light the sauce, it still turns out delicious. I decided that the sauce that covers the steak would be awesome on its own for various other applications, so I’m listing a variant here.

Pepper Sauce (used in Steak au Poivre)

  • 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/3 cup Cognac, plus 1 teaspoon
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Heat pan on medium-high, and melt butter and oil together. Add the coarsely crushed peppercorns and cook to release flavor about 5 minutes. Take pan off the heat, add cognac and hopefully light on fire with long match. Once flames die down, put pan back on the range. Add cream to the pan and bring to a boil. Gently simmer while stirring constantly about 5 minutes or until sauce has thickened. Stir in tablespoon of cognac and add salt to taste. Spoon over heartier foods such as steak, or if you’re a vegetarian over seitan or tempeh.

I don’t have a picture of the steak, as to be honest, I don’t like the food porn aspect of juicy, hot meat. This may be the karma of my former vegetarian guilt rising up inside me, but it’s possible that I just wanted to eat the expensive tenderloin while it was still hot. I can’t sacrifice everything for my art.

One of the more interesting facts I learned while researching peppercorns is that the pink peppercorn is actually from an entirely different plant called Baies Rose plant. I found an interesting dessert that calls for pink peppercorns, but after finding out my local Whole Foods doesn’t carry them, I decided to just leave them out. The Pink Peppercorn Pavlova with Strawberries, Vanilla Cream, and Basil Syrup we tried sounds complicated, but it’s rather simple to make. I didn’t know what a pavlova dessert was before yesterday, and found out that it’s a dessert that was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. It’s simply a meringue stiffened with cornstarch and baked at a relatively low temperture, and once cooled it’s topped with tart fruits and some sort of cream.

Who takes black and white photos of strawberries?

Mr. Alan Turing watches over a pavlova

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