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Spice Hunting: Pink Peppercorns
Cooking with Pink Peppercorns
Kerry Saretsky's wonderful Secret Ingredient series has given pink peppercorns some coverage before, but these little jewels are so tasty and versatile they demand another look. In a world so obsessed with black pepper—how did it become the de rigeur partner to salt?—pink peppercorns are feisty and flavorful champions of variety. Their delicate fruitiness can be a revelation to those who've only had black pepper before. These spicy, dried berries possess a deeper, more rounded pepperiness than the brash piper nigrum.
Pink peppercorns lend foods a different kind of heat, closer to chiles than black pepper. They have the same peppery bite, but it's wrapped in a sweet fruity flavor reminiscent of a berry with an attitude. The peppercorns have a thin, fragile skin that can easily be rubbed off (a great lightly-flavored colorful garnish for fish or chicken).
Unrelated to actual peppercorns, pink peppercorns originated in Peru, where they had a heavy influence on the local cuisine and culture. My archeologist girlfriend tells me that they were used to make chiche, a form of beer. Pink peppercorn beer was a trademark of the Amazon forest-based Wari tribe and drinking it functioned as a marker of tribe identity.
I tell this story not just to point out that local beer pride is as old as human civilization, but to showcase a use for these red peppery jewels. They travel well where beer would, particularly with bread. They play best with lighter beers for beer bread or with the twangy funk of slow-rise and sourdough yeast breads.
How to Use Pink Peppercorns
Since they break apart so easily, they should be crushed with a knife or spice grinder, not a pepper mill. And as they're so delicate, they're better purchased in small quantities from a specialty spice store to ensure top-quality freshness.
As Kerry showed, pink peppercorns make for an interesting twist on old school, black pepper-based recipes. They're also superb substitutions for more exotic applications of black pepper, such as ice cream, chocolate (especially with rose water), and popcorn.
I like them most when added to curry pastes. Their unexpected fruitiness plays well with aromatic galangal, garlic, and lemongrass, and their punchiness compliments the chiles as the heat lingers in the back of the mouth. Try adding a tablespoon or so to your Thai-inspired red curries. Or use it in this meat sauce for noodles, a mash-up of savory, satisfying flavors perfect for a quick but complex and satisfying mid-day lunch.
One of the best ways to appreciate pink peppercorns is to simply nibble them whole. Put some in a small bowl for your next cheese plate and instruct your guests to sprinkle some on their cheese-laden crackers. Since they're so delicate it's easy to eat them like snack food, and if you treat them like intense dried fruit, you're unlikely to go wrong. Just don't go overboard: They can be toxic if used in very large quantities. I especially enjoy pink peppercorns in leafy salads—not crushed into a vinaigrette, but left whole in lieu of capers for surprising, fruity bite.