As we slip into December, the cold winter wind begins to rattle everything that stood silent in our garden all through the long hot summer. The quiet of the morning kitchen is what I love to wake up to.
I slowly potter around wiping down kitchen platforms and rinsing a few bits and bowls from the previous night. I grind some fresh coffee beans, put on the kettle, make my morning cuppa, and as I take that first sip of coffee everything about the weather that winter brings seems to make that cup of coffee somehow richer, darker, warmer, both in aroma and flavour. Winter is a time when the familiar fragrances seem to quicken my heartbeat, send my tummy into overdrive, craving all things necessary, unnecessary, and comforting.
As I get hungrier through the day during this season I reach out for rich soups, roasted corn, hot chocolate. Dream of Christmas goodies, homely stews, spiced teas, dark coffees, and gooey cheese. I eat more ghee, butter, and, sesame, pumpkin, and add spices to my food like nutmeg, chili, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper.
Like winter brings with her warmth and richness to the season, pepper brings in both depth and spice in most of the food we cook all through the year. Walk into any kitchen, and pepper is what you are sure to find in some quantity, in homes, restaurants, and cafes around the world. It is after all the king of spices, the third most used ingredient, and the only spice present in most recipes the world over.
Used in both savoury and sweet. Pepper is often taken for granted much like salt or water but it was once used as money to pay taxes, rent, and to pay off debts. It is the oldest, most traded, and longest cultivated spice. Stuffed in the noses of Pharos, carried by Buddhist monks as medicine, and used to pay off ransoms, pepper has always been regarded as a spice of great value.
Black, white, green, or pink?
Pepper is a fruit. The berry of the Piper nigrum grows in large tapering bunches. Although black pepper is found in most tropical regions and native to Kerala, India, the ones found in Pondicherry and Kampot pepper in Cambodia is considered the better varieties.
Most of us have come across black pepper in some form whether roughly crushed, powdered, or whole. So what are the other varieties of pepper?
White pepper is just black pepper without the outer skin. Here ripe red berries are soaked in water for a week to soften the skin that is removed and then dried leaving us with black pepper.
Green pepper is immature pepper picked freshly from the vine. It is mostly brined and also added to a lot of dishes in Vietnam and Thailand.
Pink pepper is not true pepper but the dried berry of a shrub known as the Peruvian pepper tree, a different plant altogether. And if you ever do spot red pepper it is the fully ripe version of black pepper.
How may I serve you?
Hot and spicy, pepper aids digestion and increases the absorption of nutrients. Turmeric is most effective when consumed with pepper. Pepper enhances not only the absorption but also the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric.
Pepper helps relieve cold and coughs. Is used in gardening and homes as a pest deterrent.
As an oil* it is used to flush toxins, increase circulation, warm joints, and build strength after childbirth. It is also consumed whole in certain parts of the world to bring down a fever, used roughly crushed in body scrubs, and forms a major part of our dental hygiene.
How you grind pepper largely affects the outcome of how it tastes. Bite into whole pepper corn and it is an explosion of spice and heat. Crush it and it lends a great texture to a marinade. Powder it and it brings that familiar warm sensation to your gut and silent hum to your palette.
I choose to always buy it whole and grind what I need in my metallic pepper mill or pestle and mortar. You could use a wooden pepper mill however the wood will eventually draw away the oils in the peppercorn. As cooks we always aim for the best flavour so I’d say your best bet would be the metallic pepper mill.
Finally depending on how spicy, and deep you’d like that pepper to be, choose to use it while cooking or at the end when the oils in pepper are freshly ground and deliver all the punch they promise.
Peppery steak sandwich.
1 medium-size steak, around 1/2 “ in thickness.
1 crusty baguette
Soy sauce, Crushed pepper, thyme, salt to taste
2 cloves of garlic
1 handful of mushrooms
1 fresh red chilly
Before you begin always make sure the steak is at room temperature otherwise the meat will seize and not cook properly.
Take the baguette and slice it so that it opens like a pocket ready to be stuffed with some deliciousness.
On a hot cast iron pan, place a small blob of butter, and a glug of oil. Once the pan is hot place the steak on the pan, and keep your eye on the clock. The aim is to cook the meat on high heat for 3 minutes on each side flipping it after every minute. Once a minute has passed flip it immediately. You will notice that it browns nicely. (This is the magic of a hot cast iron pan).
Then after another minute proceed to flip it again.
On the third minute season it with freshly crushed pepper, thyme, and salt. Do the same for the fourth minute on the other side. You could also simultaneously rub a clove of garlic attached to the end of the fork while flipping. This will add to the flavour. On the final two flips continue to rub the garlic on the steaks.
Finally, take the steak off the heat and let it cool on a plate. Once cooled, slice the steak diagonally with a serrated knife. The meat will have cooked to a medium-rare. Trust me!… this a great sign and leaves you with meat that is soft and melts in the mouth. Reserve the juices from the steaks for the sandwich.
In another pan heat some butter, add one clove of sliced garlic, a thinly sliced onion, some crushed thyme, a little soy sauce, and a handful of sliced mushrooms. Once cooked top it with some salt and crushed pepper.
To add a bit of crunch to the sandwich thinly slice one red chilly, a carrot, and a cucumber.
Spread the reserved juices on the baguette. Place the mushroom onion mix, the sliced steaks, and the sliced chilly, carrot, and cucumber mix.
Finally, top it again with some lime and freshly crushed pepper.
Tip: My favourite children’s book is called -The Runaway Peppercorn by Suchitra Ramadurai. It is a crowd pleaser. Read it once to your kids and they’ll be begging you read it to them again and again.🤗
*Like all essential oils pepper oil can burn the skin, and must be mixed in the right proportion with carrier oils like almond, olive, or coconut oil. Always consult your nutritionist or herbalist. It is also never to be taken internally or while pregnant.