Like salt, pepper was once used as currency. Instead of saying pass the salt and pepper, you could have said pass the buck. It was certainly nothing to sneeze at. Finding pepper was the purpose of many sailing expeditions during the 15th century. These days, pepper is used in some form in almost all cuisines from around the world, to enhance the flavor of savory and even some sweet foods.
Peppercorns are actually berries that grow in grape-like clusters on the pepper plant (Piper nigrum). These plants are native to Indonesia and India. From this plant, three types of peppercorns are processed. (All this, I confirmed using the Food Lover’s Companion–one of my favorite food reference books–once again.)
Black pepper is the peppercorn most folks are familiar with. The berries are picked when they are not quite ripe, then allowed to dry. The skin shrivels and turns the dark brown to black color we see when we look at whole black peppercorns. This is the pepper put in most pepper mills. It is also the pepper that, when ground, goes into the pepper shaker–the pepper shaker that dutifully accompanies the salt shaker around the dinner table, seldom leaving its side. Once ground, pepper begins to lose its potency. Freshly ground, it is slightly sweet-tasting with a hint of spiciness.
White pepper is from the same berry, but the berry has been allowed to ripen and then the skin is removed. After drying, the pale light brown/tan peppercorn is left, creating a milder, less spicy pepper flavor. I actually find it to be a more intense. To me it has more real pepper flavor, and it is not as sharp as black pepper. White pepper is often used in foods where the black flakes of ground black pepper, such as a pale white cream sauce, would be very noticeable.
Green peppercorns are the soft under-ripe berries. Green peppercorns are usually freeze-dried or brined. Their flavor is mild, yet tastes of pepper. I like to crush freeze-dried green peppercorns, stir them into room temperature butter and slather it onto corn on the fresh cob, straight from the farmer’s market.
Pink peppercorns are not part of the same plant, but look cool none the less. They are from a type of rose plant and don’t really taste like pepper at all. I rarely use them when I am cooking at home or in any of my kids, teen or adult cooking classes.
Here is one of my favorite hash brown recipes that I love having with Steak au Poivre and Sauce Chasseur. To make this meal truly fabulous, I would have a Double IPA followed by a glass of Merlot.
Black Pepper Potato Crisp
Grate the potatoes while the butter and oil are heating to keep them from turning brown. Don’t put them in water; they will lose the starch that helps them form into a hash brown disk.
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound baking potatoes, peeled and grated
½ teaspoon salt
½ 1 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
Method: Heat the butter and oil in a cast-iron or otherwise heavy skillet over medium high heat. When the butter stops foaming and begins to brown, add the potatoes. Spread them to an even thickness. Season well with salt and pepper. Let cook and allow to brown on the bottom. Do not allow to burn. Adjust the heat as necessary. Once the potatoes have browned nicely on the bottom (it should be one large hash brown disk and should slide as one), turn over and brown the other side. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature. If the hash brown disk is very thick, you can always place it in a 350 F oven and bake it for 15-20 minutes to make sure it is cooked throughout.