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Spice of life — Black pepper has a distinguished history of its own

NEW YORK — Salt and pepper have been partners for so long that hardly anyone questions how they happened to form such a lasting relationship.

The matchup began in the days when salting was the only way to preserve meat and fish. Pepper was added before eating, to make the salty food more palatable. Sailors who lived for months at a time on salted meat always carried pepper with them.

But long before meeting salt, pepper had a distinguished history in its own right, says Dave DeWitt, co-author with Nancy Gerlach of "The Spicy Food Lover's Bible" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2005, $29.95).

DeWitt, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., is a writer whose specialty is fiery food. Interviewed by phone, he said he became fascinated with black pepper while researching the book.

The book is about many spices, but according to DeWitt, going back to biblical times "the story of the spice trade is essentially the story of the pepper trade." It's been said that no other spice has had a greater effect on world history than pepper.

Pepper from India was used medicinally by the ancient Greeks and was enormously popular in ancient Rome. "Sprinkle with pepper and serve" is the last step in a recipe for diced pork and apples from the world's oldest surviving cookbook, "De Re Coquinaria" (On Cookery), DeWitt writes.

In England, pepper was so valuable that guards on London docks had their pockets sewn shut to prevent them from stealing peppercorns. Pepper was a major currency, accepted in many 11th-century towns as payment for taxes, DeWitt says.

With peppercorns literally worth their weight in gold, "explorers such as Columbus, Magellan and Vasco de Gama searched for them as they would for any treasure. Thus pepper stimulated the Europeans' exploration of the world. Of course, Columbus did not find black pepper, but rather chile peppers, which he misnamed," DeWitt writes.

Salem, Mass., became the pepper capital of the New World. In 1790 it was the nation's sixth largest city and the richest per capita.

"Salem was the trans-shipment point," DeWitt says, "an aspect of the very fast schooners." Between 1795 and 1873, clipper ships made nearly a thousands trips, each 24,000 miles, to Sumatra and back.

Today Vietnam is the world's largest pepper exporter and the second largest producer after India. The United States remains the major importer, followed by Europe, Japan and North Africa.

Black pepper is the single most popular spice in America, comprising approximately 10 percent of all spice sales, according to major spice purveyor, McCormick & Company.

In previous books, DeWitt has focused on chili pepper. He is such an aficionado that he founded Chile Pepper magazine and later Fiery Foods magazine.

While black pepper hasn't got the intense heat of chili pepper, it is pungent and flavorful with a distinct aroma.

It is also one of the most universally used flavoring agents, found in a wide range of foods from processed meats to crackers, liquor and salad dressings. Pepper has long been used to ease ailments from headaches to asthma; today medical researchers are looking at piperine, the alkaloid in pepper, as a possible agent in anti-inflammatory and anti-convulsant drugs.

In "The Spicy Food Lover's Bible," DeWitt writes that peppercorns are picked green, just as they are turning red. Then they are fermented and sun-dried until they become wrinkled and black. White pepper is made by submerging fresh peppercorns in water for several days to soften the outer skin so it can be rubbed off.

There are several types of peppers. "Tellicherry (from India) is one of the most popular," DeWitt says. "This is good for basic use."

The best way to use pepper is to buy it whole and grind it yourself, he says. When you are buying whole black pepper, look for unbroken, uniform, debris-free peppercorns. Go for the largest, freshest, most full-scented pepper.

"When pepper is ground, it oxidizes and loses its oils. It has no pungency," DeWitt says. "If you buy ground pepper always look for the sell-by date."

As for pepper grinders, according to DeWitt the best have a ceramic grinding surface and a grind adjustment so you can choose to grind fine or coarse pepper.

"Wood absorbs oils," he explains.

His advice is to always store pepper in airtight glass (not plastic) containers, filling them up so there's no air inside, and sealing tightly. Keep containers out of direct light and away from any moisture source. Black peppercorns will last indefinitely when properly stored.

"You can freeze them. This prevents any oxidation," DeWitt says. He suggests triple-bagging peppercorns if you freeze them.

The shelf life of white pepper and coarsely ground black pepper is about a year. Green peppercorns packed in vinegar or brine will last about a month in the refrigerator, while water-packed ones should be used within a week. "Cracked" peppercorn is the most coarsely ground, DeWitt says, and "fine shaker" the finest. The coarser the grind, the longer ground pepper will last.

DeWitt says his favorite way to use black pepper is in steak poivre (poivre is the French for pepper). "When grilling, I like really good sirloin steak. I use three peppers: green, white, and black in a coarse grind. I press the pepper into the steak and just grill."

The book gives tips for using pepper:

Mix different types of pepper. Grind together black, white and pink peppercorns with coriander seeds to add new dimensions to smoked meats and fish and vegetables.

Sauces: Green peppercorns are often combined with liquor such as bourbon and meat stock to make a sauce that is served over grilled lamb or veal chops. They are also used in salad dressings and soups.

Baking: Most bakers prefer white pepper, which is more subtle when used in cakes, muffins and focaccia. Other baked goods that benefit from using white (and, in some cases, black) pepper include pastries, tart shells, vegetable breads such as pumpkin or zucchini, carrot cake, biscuits and cookies.

Desserts: One of the most common modern uses of cracked black pepper is in simple desserts. DeWitt points out that black pepper has long been used in gingerbread and the traditional German cookies, pfeffernuesse (pepper nut), but today chefs seem to be rediscovering cracked black pepper with sweets. They sprinkle it over fruits such as berries, mango, pineapple, melon slices of all kinds, and orange sections.

"It's good with tangerine sorbet," DeWitt comments. "Some people like pepper in ice cream. They seem to get off on the sweet heat concept."

BRAISED ASIAN-SPICED PORK AND VEGETABLES

Asian Spice Rub:

1 teaspoon anise seed

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon coarse-grind black pepper

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Roast:

3 pounds boneless pork loin roast

2 tablespoons oil

4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/3 cup soy sauce

1/3 cup Chinese rice wine or sherry, optional

1 tablespoon sugar

1 head Napa cabbage, sliced

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To prepare Asian Spice Rub, coarsely crush the anise seed. Mix it with the other seasonings until well blended. Rub evenly on all sides of roast.

Heat oil in heavy 6-to-8-quart ovenproof sauce pot on medium heat. Add roast; brown well on all sides. Remove from pot; set aside. Add carrots and onion to pot; cook and stir 5 minutes or until onion is softened. Stir in broth, soy sauce, wine and sugar. Place roast on top of vegetables.

Cover pot and place in oven to braise 30 minutes. Stir in cabbage; cover. Braise 30 minutes longer, or until pork is desired doneness and cabbage is tender. Remove roast and vegetables to serving platter. Mix cornstarch and water until smooth. Stir into liquid in pot. Stirring constantly, bring to boil on medium heat and boil 1 minute. Serve with roast and vegetables. Garnish with sliced green onions, if desired. Makes 12 servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 262 calories, 14 grams fat, 25 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 68 mg cholesterol, 728 mg sodium, 2 grams fiber. — McCormick & Company Inc.

FRESH MARGARITA STRAWBERRIES WITH TEQUILA AND CRACKED BLACK PEPPERCORNS

This recipe is for a margarita that you eat with a spoon, not drink, DeWitt says. If you don't like to use alcohol, you can simply leave the tequila out of the recipe. The peppercorns leave your mouth warm after eating the strawberries.

4 cups sliced strawberries

1/3 cup orange juice, preferably fresh

1/4 cup tequila (optional)

2 tablespoons lime juice, preferably fresh

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground coarse black pepper

Sugar to taste

Lime slices for garnish

Combine the strawberries, orange juice, tequila, if using, lime juice and vinegar (to taste), and toss to coat. Add the pepper and toss again. For a dramatic presentation, serve in margarita glasses; rub the rims of the glasses with lime juice and dip them into the sugar. Divide the strawberries among the glasses, sprinkle a little sugar over the berries, garnish with lime slices, and serve. Serves 4. — "The Spicy Food Lover's Bible"

CRACKED BLACK PEPPERCORN MUSTARD

This easy-to-prepare mustard has a distinctive peppercorn flavor that's excellent on dark breads and with smoked meats, and makes a perfect coating for steaks or burgers before grilling. Add a little of this mustard to beef gravy for an added flavor dimension, DeWitt says.

1/4 cup whole yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup champagne vinegar

1/4 cup hot water

2 tablespoons coarsely cracked black peppercorns

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Place the mustard seeds in a spice mill or coffee grinder and process until finely ground. Combine the mustard and vinegar in a bowl and stir to mix. Allow the mixture to sit for 15 minutes. Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Spoon the mustard into a sterilized jar, cover, and refrigerate for 1 week before using. Mustard will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 6 months after opening. Makes 1/2 cup. — "The Spicy Food Lover's Bible"

SPAGHETTI A CACIO E PEPE

Simple, rustic and popular, spaghetti with black pepper and pecorino is a tasty dish found in the Roman trattorias, DeWitt says. Pecorino is a sharp, hard cheese used in sauces. Two tips: Use the ragged-edged holes of a box grater, not the small holes, for cheese that will melt easily and not clump. Dilute the cheese and pepper with some of the starchy cooking water before tossing it with the spaghetti.

1/2 pound dried spaghetti

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, sliced

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 to 2 cups grated pecorino Romano cheese

Salt to taste

In a large saucepan or stock pot, bring 4 quarts salted water to a boil, add the spaghetti, and cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve at least 1 cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the pasta, but do not rinse it.

Heat a small skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil, and when hot, add the garlic and saute until golden, but not brown. Remove the garlic, as it will continue to cook and burn. Add the butter and pepper to the pan.

Return 1/2 to 1 cup of the cooking water to the saucepan, add the olive oil mixture and 1 cup of the cheese, stir, and heat over medium heat. Add the pasta, and toss for about 3 minutes, until the cheese melts and the sauce coats the pasta, adding more reserved cooking liquid if dry. Taste and season with salt.

Place the pasta in a large bowl, top with the reserved garlic, and serve with extra cheese on the side, if desired.

Makes 2 servings as an entree, 4 as a first course. — "The Spicy Food Lover's Bible"

HEARTY BEEF STEW WITH ROASTED WINTER VEGETABLES

In this twist on traditional beef stew, the vegetables are first roasted to bring out their flavor. The stew is spooned over mashed potatoes that have been flavored with bay leaves.

4 cups winter vegetables (diced 1/2 inch cubes) such as carrots, butternut squash, parsnips or sweet potatoes

1 medium onion, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 1/2 pounds beef sirloin, cut into 1-inch cubes

3/4 cup chicken broth

5 bay leaves, divided use

1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup dry red wine (or 1/2 cup beef broth)

6 servings prepared mashed potatoes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss diced vegetables and onion with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place on a large baking sheet; roast 20 minutes or until vegetables are golden. Brown beef in 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, about 5 minutes. Add roasted vegetables, chicken broth, 3 bay leaves, thyme, pepper, salt and wine or beef broth. Simmer 5-10 minutes or until sauce is slightly thickened.

Meanwhile, prepare either fresh or instant mashed potatoes, adding 2 bay leaves to the cooking water. Serve stew over mashed potatoes. Makes 6 servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 409 calories, 17 grams fat, 30 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrate, 80 mg cholesterol, 709 mg sodium, 6 grams fiber. — McCormick & Company Inc.