Salt Needs a New Companion

What to eat. What not to eat.
Jan. 4 2012 7:15 AM

Against Pepper

Salt needs a new companion.

(Continued from Page 1)

It's a sad story, because long pepper is, in fact, a terrific spice. But the very thing that makes it interesting causes some problems for modern cookery: The pepper combines its heat with a heady sweet aroma that would be brilliant in a meaty winter stew, but distracting on, say, simple grilled fish. Besides, it is ornery to pulverize: If we wanted it freshly cracked we’d need to come up with a new kind of grinder.

What about the other kinds of peppercorns? White peppercorns, which are black ones without their husks, tend to be preferred by cooks in Southeast Asia and by fancy chefs who don’t want dark specks in pale sauces. But this form has a strange tendency to smell like dirty socks. Green peppercorns, the unripe berries from the same pepper vine, are essential to steak au poivre, with aromas of an old-school men’s club—tobacco, bay rhum, mustaches. They’re delicious, but altogether too specific for general use. The pink peppercorns we see in the market are not really peppercorns at all but rather the berries of the Schinus terebinthifolius tree. They impart a fruity, floral, pine note with little heat—they're simply not charismatic enough to be an essential (though they are pretty, and I’d be happy if they could get over the ignominy of their 1980s trendiness and return to our spice cabinets). Sichuan peppercorns, the dried fruit rinds from some Zanthoxylum trees, provide another form of nonpepper pepper. They have a lemony and distinctive tongue-buzzing quality that is fantastic in five-spice dishes, but they remain, to my taste, a bit too stimulating for everyday use (though I suppose that argument goes nowhere in Sichuan).

That leaves one of the great gifts of the new world: chili peppers—a spicy substitute from a totally different genus of plants (Capsicum). A chili-based hot sauce, such as Tabasco, could be another contender for the role of second spice, and does, in fact, have a permanent place on the table at many dining rooms across the country. But pepper sauces tend to have a little too much bite for some dishes. The heat is less the problem, I find, than the acid sauce base.

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Tabasco is close, though. I would argue to replace tabletop black pepper with one of the dried chili varieties that are cultivated in the Mediterranean. Maybe piment d’espelette, the Basque chili pepper; or Aleppo pepper, the lemony Syrian kind; or, best of all, Marash red pepper from Turkey, which holds just a modicum of heat in its dark red flakes, but also a sort of cherry-toned fruitiness and a pleasant orange-pith bitterness. Is Marash red pepper arcane? Yes. Esoteric? Yes. Difficult to find at the store? Yes once more (though you can order it online). But it is wildly versatile and hard to overdo. I’ve never met a pot of beans, a chicken soup, or a green salad that didn’t taste better with some of these flakes sprinkled on top. It works in pork stews, on lamb, on buttered carrots and eggs. Even a 20-pound pot of mashed potatoes would taste better with a spoonful of Marash pepper. If only I’d known this when I was working at Spago.