Welcome back to Hey Chef, a series where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love. Today: Sichuan peppercorns.
If you're not familiar with the numbing, tongue-tingling bite of Sichuan peppercorns, they can be a nerve-wracking ingredient to bring into your kitchen. So we asked chefs around the country to show just how versatile this spice can be, and how to incorporate into food well beyond the Sichuan standards, without the pain. And not just savory applications—we have some pastry chefs who love these little berries, too.
Sweet, Spicy, Salty Nuts
Amanda Cohen has received numerous accolades for her vegetarian cooking at New York's Dirt Candy, including a glowing two-star review in the New York Times, a Michelin Bib Gourmand nod, and a Top 10 best vegetarian restaurant in America award from Food & Wine. Cohen is also author of the award-winning Dirt Candy: A Cookbook.
People are really intimidated by Sichuan peppercorns because usually the first time you experience them is when you're eating Sichuan cuisine, which is spicy. But alone they're not that much spicier than a black peppercorn, maybe even less. They're a flavor enhancer, so if you have something slightly sweet, they're going to make it sweeter, or something salty will get saltier. And there's something admirable about that mouth tingle to them that makes you wanna have another bite.
I candy walnuts and toss them with Sichuan peppercorns, and a little salt and sugar mixture. You take these really crunchy, crispy, nutty walnuts that are already compelling on their own, and then add an even more craveable element with the peppercorns.
Spicy Cocktail Syrup
Chicago's chef Jonathan Zaragoza makes classic Mexican cuisine that we can't get enough of. He's big into the local gardening scene, too, growing massive amounts of fresh produce that make it directly into the kitchens of Birrieria Zaragoza and Masa Azul.
I love Sichuan cooking, because if it's done right you get this super mouth-numbing sensation that's like, "Holy shit, I can't feel my mouth and my tongue doesn't feel like mine."
I wanted to get that sensation into a drink. So we made a Sichuan peppercorn syrup with water, sugar, and crushed Sichuan peppercorns (to increase surface area for more infusion). It uses four cups of peppercorns, but added in rounds. In a medium pot you take one quart of water, one quart of sugar, and one cup of peppercorns. Bring them up to a slight boil, take it off the heat, and let it sit. Then do that again three more times, adding an additional cup of peppercorns each time. At the end you get this intense syrup. We do it with an egg white cocktail with mezcal, and it's the bomb because you get the foam from the egg white, the acidity from lemon, and the heat at the end. It's a really cool experience to drink.
Chef Annie Pettry grew up gardening, foraging, and fishing in her home town of Asheville, North Carolina, and made some serious cooking stops before landing at Decca Restaurant in Louisville. A 2014 Starchefs Rising Star, her menu relies on the diverse products of Kentucky agriculture.
Infuse them in honey. Barely heat up honey (don't boil it, because it makes the flavor change), add some Sichuan peppercorns, and bring it up to almost a simmer, turn it off, let it sit for half an hour, then strain it out and drizzle it over fried chicken. I've done it on lamb and sweet potatoes, too. They have that little bit of numbing sensation, but it's not that spicy, so if you're a wuss for spice it's not going to blow your brains out. It's a bit of an exotic pepper, but the honey mellows it out and the two ingredients go really well together.
Jeffrey Saad is owner and executive chef of Studio City's La Ventura, where he does his own spin on Mexican cuisine inspired by his travels through the country. He is also responsible for San Francisco's Sweet Heat and Pasta Pomodoro restaurants.
Make your own version of a Chinese Five Spice: Get a coffee grinder and throw in some fennel seeds, clove, star anise, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorns. Give it a nice grind and throw it on whatever you're grilling. The star anise is so sweet that it mixes with the peppercorns and adds candied flavor to whatever you're making. So "candy" your meats or anything you're gonna grill, sauté, or stir fry, for this great coating.
Beyond Sichuan Fried Chicken
Quealy Watson is the executive chef and partner of Hot Joy in San Antonio, which Bon Appetit awarded a spot on their Hot 10 list of 2014. There he marries common ingredients and dishes—Fritos and fried rice—with full-flavored touches from Sichuan, Mongolia, and beyond.
We make a Nashville hot fried chicken brined in soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorn, garlic, Shaoxing rice wine, and ginger. We dredge the chicken in a mix of cornstarch, black pepper, Szechuan peppercorns and flour, then buttermilk, then back in the flour mix, and fry it at 325°F until done. Then we toss in a mix of Sichuan peppercorns, chili oil, palm sugar, and garlic powder, and serve it with Sichuan peppercorn pickles and chive biscuits.
Serious Tarte Tartin
Pastry chef Joe Murphy heads up the pastry kitchen at the iconic Jean-Georges in Manhattan, where his sweet dessert menu adorns an excellent fine-dining value lunch meal.
The first time I had Sichuan peppercorns I couldn't believe how strong they were, especially the high quality ones. I make a peach tarte tartin, and when it comes out of the oven, I flip it out and gently go over the top with Sichuan peppercorns ground in a pepper mill. We serve it with a white chocolate ice cream (you could do lavender ice cream as well). There are a lot of things going on, with the sweet peaches and a bite from the peppercorns.
A Shocking Shortbread
Chef Jonathan Benno worked in high positions at such esteemed restaurants as Daniel, Craft, The French Laundry and Per Se before opening Lincoln Ristorante in the heart of New York's Lincoln Center, where his Italian cuisine is familiar and comforting, yet highly refined and inventive.
At Per Se we used to use Sichuan peppercorns and juniper in shortbread, which was then used as a garnish with cheese. Take any standard shortbread recipe—butter flour, sugar, and a punch of salt—and add toasted and ground peppercorns and ginger. For some reason they work together really well together.
Pastry chef Miroslav Uskokovic worked under Jean-Georges Chef Joe Murphy (and former chef Johnny Iuzzini) before creating his own menus at George Mendes' Aldea and, currently, at Union Square Hospitality Group's Gramercy Tavern.
I love Sichuan peppercorns. I make a Sichuan peppercorn sugar by combining some peppercorns and sugar, letting them sit for a bit, then grinding them in the Vitamix until they're like a powder, then letting them sit for a few days to infuse fully. We make brioche, slice it thinly, sprinkle the sugar onto it, and caramelize it so that it has a nice, numbing tang. Then we serve it with green tea cream, fresh strawberries, and some ice cream, so it's sort of a mound of strawberries and ice cream covered with Sichuan peppercorn "chips."