Spice Hunting: Tasmanian Pepper
A while back I was shopping with SE'r CityMinx at The Meadow, a specialty shop known for its salt. Their selection was impressive, but nothing blew me away like some unassuming dried berries called Tasmanian pepper.
When whole, the spice gives off a sweet musk, somewhere between juniper and fennel, but when crushed becomes way, way more complex. There's a pepper-like brashness to the flavor and aroma (though the spice isn't related to piper nigrum), but also a deep woody sweetness with herbal and floral tinges. This spice isn't so much tasted as experienced: it takes a few seconds to process everything going on in your mouth. You're left with something alpine, woodsy, and fruity with a seriously addictive bite.
Tasmanian pepper joins the ranks of spices like grains of paradise, ingredients with flavors so complex and varied it's hard to pin them down to a single analogy or referent. These super-spices can be used with a broad range of ingredients and techniques, letting different aspects of their flavors shine and compliment other components of the dish. Tasmanian pepper is something of a spice chameleon: It becomes what you need it to be.
Your preparations can get as complex as you like, but the simplest one shown to me is my favorite. Crush a pinch of berries; they flatten easily under the weight of a palm, and immerse them in lemon juice or vinegar. Let them sit for 15 minutes and the acid will turn deep purple. At this point it's ready to be dribbled over soft cheese, added to a marinade, or whisked into a salad dressing. The berries will have softened enough to be eaten whole.
Should greater ambitions take hold of you, try some Tasmanian pepper in soups of all kinds: either meaty, wintry, long-simmered affairs or quick summer blends of eggplant, red peppers, and tomatoes. Tasmanian pepper does well with earthy ingredients like lamb, mushrooms, and anything roasted. It can tread most places juniper can (think gin!), and it makes for a less overpowering substitute.
My favorite pairing for the spice is bulb fennel. They share a complex sweetness, and the pepper's heat is the perfect compliment to raw fennel's astringency. Here I've joined them in a simple salad with oranges and roasted red peppers (other great friends of the spice, all for different reasons that harmonize quite well) on a bed of arugula. But the pairing of Tasmanian pepper and fennel is really begging to form the aromatic vapors of a pot of mussels.
Using Tasmanian pepper couldn't be simpler. Just crush and add to whatever you're cooking, no need to grind. Finding them is a more difficult matter. If high-end specialty spice shops in your area don't carry them, your best bet is to seek them out online. The Meadow carries them for $11 an ounce—steep, yes, but a little of these goes a long way. Besides, crazy complex ingredients like this don't come around all that often. They're worth the indulgence.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.