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Black gold

Special to The Times

FORGET arugula. The true symbol of how far American cooking has come in the last few decades is black pepper.

When I went to restaurant school in 1983, our bible of ingredients, “Wenzel’s Menu Maker,” listed only two varieties, Malabar and Tellicherry, but neither from the southwestern coast of India where those particular peppercorns are actually grown. It insisted that “the only use of black pepper is as a condiment.” And its recipes never specified freshly ground pepper in an era when big tins of pallid powder were stored near the stove and every table held a pepper shaker, not a mill.

Right now I have black peppercorns in my kitchen from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Ecuador, in addition to bags of Tellicherry and Malabar. And I’m as likely to use any of them in a dessert or as a crust on meat as I am to relegate them to a mere finishing touch for food. Pepper has come into its own as an ingredient, not least because of the renaissance of salumi, for which it is crucial to the flavor and curing, and to the point that Santa Monica entrepreneur Jing Tio of Le Sanctuaire has invested in six Indonesian farms to produce artisanal pepper for chefs and other caring cooks.

The whole spice rack has undergone an upgrade as cooks have gotten more discerning and the world has shrunk, thanks to frequent fliers searching out new sources of the usual allspice-to-turmeric lineup on most shelves. But black pepper -- the world’s most popular spice for millennia -- has benefited most from the new awareness that terroir matters, as much with food as with wine. No spice-respecting cook ever settles for the gray stuff in a tin anymore than he or she would choose Nestle’s semi-sweet when single-source choices are available from Venezuela and myriad other countries. The all-purpose berries sold as “black pepper” may add heat. If you want nuance and resonance, you need a “varietal.” Maybe two or three.

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Pepper connoisseurs have always known that Tellicherry is the surest sign of quality on a label. Black pepper is native to India, and the peppercorns produced there have the fullest flavor, aroma and pungency of any in the world. The volatile oils are what distinguish black peppercorns, and Tellicherry’s are most redolent.

Taste the differences

BUT size is also a consideration -- bigger is better. Some of the peppercorns imported from other tropical countries can be nearly as good as those from India, with subtly different flavor. Floral is not a word you would think of first with peppercorns, but Sarawak, from the island of Borneo, is just that.

Generally, you can use them all interchangeably at the table. For cooking, however, some take more kindly to sugar than others and are better suited to dessert. Overall, you can never go wrong reaching for Tellicherry for a recipe.

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All true peppercorns in the Piper nigrum family are berries from a vine that grows anywhere around the equator. Those from the mountainous southwestern coast of India are allowed to mature but not ripen before they are picked, ideally by hand. Malabar peppercorns are harvested at the same time as Tellicherry but grow lower on the same vines. Both types are blanched, then air-dried in the sun until they turn dark and aromatic.

Color is not an indicator of quality, according to Tio. As he notes, all-black peppercorns are not found in nature; the peppercorns should be deep brown to almost purple-black. What is more important is the taste and smell: Piperine gives peppercorns pungency, while volatile oils make them aromatic, Tio says.

Crush a few Tellicherry peppercorns with a mortar and pestle and you immediately smell why the name has such mystique. The aroma is beyond robust and almost sweet, while the flavor is acutely well-balanced. Taste it and you feel the heat immediately. Malabar peppercorns are smaller and less potent, both to the nose and on the palate. But they can be hotter; you feel the pungency all the way across your tongue.

Sarawak peppercorns, which are air-dried indoors and retain more flavor, are also exceptional. Crush even a couple and you can sense why pastry chefs such as Pierre Herme are so taken with them for desserts made with berries, pineapple and apricots. The fragrance is not strong but it is peppery and sweet, almost like allspice, and the heat finishes strongly. These go particularly well with cream and butter and sugar, and would even work in a cheesecake, as Marcus Samuelsson makes with black peppercorns.

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Another contender for the black ribbon is Lampong, the kind Tio produces organically in Indonesia, which contains more piperine. The peppercorns are relatively small and the aroma is subtle, almost hinting of cinnamon, but the heat and flavor are extremely well-balanced. Tio, however, says they are most valuable for pure pungency. Though Tellicherry has a “cucumber finish,” he says, Lampong has no finish; it is just extremely strong. (Most of his chef clients buy top-of-the-line Tellicherry for cooking and Lampong for preparations such as stock, in which great peppercorns would be wasted.)

Vietnam produces exceptional white pepper and now is becoming a leading exporter of black peppercorns. (It already outdistances Brazil with coffee and may do the same with spices; most of what is sold as generic black pepper in the United States has traditionally come from Brazil.) Its peppercorns have an aroma that is more complex than strong; you can almost whiff incense. The heat and flavor are just as rounded.

Peppercorns from Ecuador, which are very high in piperine, have a sweet, searing fragrance and intense heat; to me it seems as if you feel them more than taste them.

Cook with it, bake with it

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LE SANCTUAIRE sells top-grade, extra-bold Tellicherry for $60 a pound and Lampong for $12 a pound. Tio says spices should be judged by a “see, smell, taste” standard, but what he sells he also has analyzed by a lab to be sure the peppercorns have the right oil content and density (to be sure they have not been over-dried) and are free of pesticides. Kalustyans.com carries all the varieties above, for $4.99 (Sarawak) to $5.99 (Lampong) for a 4-ounce bag.

(Green peppercorns are just what they sound like: picked before they are mature and then either dried, freeze-dried or pickled in brine. White peppercorns are actually fully ripe black ones that have had the husk removed. Pink peppercorns are a different species, while Sichuan peppercorns come from still another family.)

Any of the black peppercorn “varietals” will transform any dish if you do nothing more than grind it over just before serving. But you can do so much more, with sweet as well as with savory recipes. Just a pinch of black pepper in a pumpkin pie filling or gingerbread batter will add a pungent undertone; you can even sneak a little into the cinnamon coating for snickerdoodles for a hint of heat. But as much as a quarter-cup mixed with panko will create a vibrant, crunchy crust for seared lamb or pork chops, or steaks, or even fresh tuna. Any roast benefits from a coating of crushed peppercorns too.

Peppercorns, whole or crushed, are also easy to use to infuse sauces such as a custardy sabayon to spoon over steamed green beans or grilled fish. Add them to Port and poached pears for a lively but light dessert; a few allspice berries crushed with the peppercorns will intensify the complexity. (Allspice and peppercorns have a natural affinity. The French make a blend called mignonette by combining black and white peppercorns in a grinder with allspice berries and sometimes coriander seeds in a 2-to-1 ratio.)

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Black pepper is also underutilized in baking, as far as I’m concerned, maybe because I grew up eating biscuits with pepper gravy. It suits any yeast-bread dough, particularly one with prosciutto or pancetta, but is an even more direct pleasure mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano in a quick bread that can be sliced to serve with drinks or a salad and toasted for breakfast.

Whole black peppercorns are also an essential ingredient in a good stock, a crab boil or corned beef.

When coarsely crushed, peppercorns take on a more mellow flavor. You can do this with a mortar and pestle or by putting the peppercorns in a paper bag and running a rolling pin over it.

Whole black peppercorns have an enviable shelf life; they keep at least a year if stored in an airtight container in the dark. Once they’re ground, the flavor starts dissipating until all that’s left is a sneeze risk. It’s better to keep a full pepper mill than a small dish of ground pepper handy to the stove. Or, these days, several pepper mills.

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food@latimes.com

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Peppered pears

Total time: 1 hour

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Servings: 4

Note: The poaching liquid also can be served without the pears as a sauce for chocolate ice cream.

1 1/2 tablespoons black peppercorns, preferably Tellicherry

2 teaspoons whole allspice

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3 cups good-quality Port

1/3 cup sugar

4 large, firm but ripe pears (preferably Anjou)

1. Combine the peppercorns and allspice in a mortar and coarsely crush with pestle. Place the spices in a large saucepan or pot (wide enough to hold the pears, halved, in a single layer). Add the Port and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes.

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2. While the Port mixture steeps, peel, halve and core the pears.

3. Strain the Port mixture through a fine sieve to remove the spices. Return it to the pan on low heat. Lay the pears into the pan, cut side down. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Uncover and turn the pears over. Cover and cook 3 minutes longer, until the pears are soft but not mushy. Transfer to a platter with a slotted spoon and arrange cut side up.

4. Raise the heat under the saucepan and cook the liquid until it is reduced almost to a glaze, to about half a cup, about 15 minutes. Pour over the pears, filling each cavity, and serve at once or after cooling.

Each serving: 468 calories; 1 gram protein; 73 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 18 mg. sodium.

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Peppered lamb chops

Total time: 25 minutes plus time for chops to temper, about 1 hour

Servings: 4

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Note: Ask your butcher to cut the chops 1 1/4 -inch thick. They may be single- or double-bone chops depending on the size of the lamb. You or the butcher can trim the excess fat; leave a little for flavor and so that the chops don’t cook too quickly.

8 rib lamb chops, about 1 1/4 -inch thick, trimmed of excess fat

Salt

1/2 cup panko

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4 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

4 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

1. Bring the lamb chops to room temperature so they will cook quickly and evenly. Season them on both sides with salt to taste.

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2. Combine the panko, black pepper and thyme in a shallow dish.

3. Heat two large, heavy skillets, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat.

4. When the skillets are very hot, add 2 tablespoons of oil to each and swirl to coat the bottom. Press the chops firmly into the pepper mixture on both sides to coat evenly and thickly. Place the chops in the skillets and cook 4 minutes. Turn the chops over and carefully pour off the fat from the pans.

5. Continue cooking for 3 minutes, then turn the chops on their sides to sear the fat for 3 minutes. Return to the second side down and cook until the chops are done to taste, about 2 minutes longer for rare. The crust will be very brown.

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Each serving: 286 calories; 18 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 68 mg. cholesterol; 50 mg. sodium.

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Pepper-Parmesan bread

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus cooling time

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Servings: 8 to 10

2 tablespoons melted butter plus extra for pan

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

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1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, preferably Tellicherry

1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

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2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper and mix with a whisk until thoroughly combined; make sure the pepper is well distributed. Stir in the cheese.

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3. In another bowl, combine the eggs, milk and melted butter and mix lightly. Pour this mixture into the bowl with the dry ingredients and cheese. Mix with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until all the ingredients are well moistened.

4. Scrape the dough into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool slightly on a rack before turning out of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Each serving: 178 calories; 5 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 6 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 57 mg. cholesterol; 335 mg. sodium.


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