With apologies to Sesame Street (go ahead and sing along — you know the tune):
Three of these things belong together,
Three of these things are kind of the same.
Can you guess which peppercorn is not a pepper,
Even though it has the same name?
If you guessed pink, you're a star! Black, white and green peppercorns are all fruit of the same plant (Piper nigrum), picked at different stages and processed in different ways. Pink peppercorns are the fruit of Schinus terebinthifolius, cultivated only since the 1980s.
Black peppercorns are full-sized, nearly ripe berries that are sun-dried. An enzyme contained in the pericarp (the outer layer) oxidizes, and turns them black. White peppercorns are the inner seed, with the pericarp soaked or rubbed off. Green peppercorns, full-sized but not yet ripe, are kept green (or unoxidized) by brining, or boiling and oven drying, or freeze-drying; this keeps the enzyme from oxidizing.
When comparing and selecting which peppercorn to use in cooking, consider two factors: aroma, and pungency. Black pepper has both, and plenty of it; white pepper, though pungent, has little aroma. Green peppercorns have a light aroma and pungency. And within each type of peppercorn, the quality of the flavor will vary, depending on where the pepper was grown, and the level of essential oil and piperine (an alkaloid) present.
Indian Malabar, considered the best quality black peppercorn, has a fruity aroma and clean bite. Tellicherry has the largest berries. Sarawak pepper from Malaysia has a milder aroma, but is hot and biting. Muntok, from Indonesia, is said to be the best white peppercorn.
Pepper loses its pungency and aroma fairly quickly when ground, so buy whole peppercorns and a good pepper mill. Stored in an airtight container (or in the freezer), peppercorns will keep for a year. In my pantry, I also do keep coarse-ground black pepper from Penzeys; a small amount goes in a jar on the spice rack, and the rest goes in the freezer. I use an eight-ounce bag every couple of months.
Neither sweet nor savory, pepper features in the cuisines of nearly every country and region. It's often used to bring out the flavor of other spices; try a little bit of black pepper in sorbet, and you'll really taste the fruit. Whole dishes like steak au poivre pay tribute to black peppercorns, and a few tossed into stew or soup stock (be sure to strain the stock after cooking) adds depth of flavor. Pepper dresses up vegetables, fish, chicken, venison, and sweets.
Unlike salt, which is essential to the body's survival, pepper is not a biological requirement, but it is a culinary necessity. Can you imagine cooking without it?
Grandma's beef brisket
The original version of this recipe called for Manischewitz kosher wine, but it's too sweet for me. If you have time (and self-control), make this at least one day ahead, and store in an airtight container in the braising liquid to keep the meat moist. By the way, when I first published this recipe in the Ninecooks newsletter, my friend Fran challenged me to a brisket cook-off, my grandmother's recipe against hers. I'm pretty sure this recipe is a winner, especially if you like your brisket in sandwiches, with spicy mustard or horseradish sauce. Serves 8.
4-5 lb beef brisket, well trimmed of visible fat
2 Tbsp olive oil
3-4 enormous yellow onions, thickly sliced
1 bay leaf
12-15 black peppercorns
1 bottle dry red wine, or more
Rub meat all over with seasoned salt, and brown in an extremely hot frying pan (do not add any oil or fat to pan). AT THE SAME TIME, in a large pot or casserole sauté the sliced onions in 2 Tbsp olive oil on low heat, until the onions are limp, but not brown, 15 minutes. Add to the onions the meat, bay leaf, peppercorns, wine, and enough water to just cover the meat. Cover and simmer for 3-1/2 to 4 hours, until meat almost falls apart.
Serve with latkes for a traditional Chanukah meal, or with garlic mashed potatoes.
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