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The Spice of Life

October 12, 2010

I’m calling hogwash on “variety”.  Variety isn’t a spice.  For those in the cheap seats, my well-worn copy of the Food Lover’s Companion clearly lays out that spices are:

Pungent or aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seed or stems of various plants and trees (whereas herbs usually come from the leafy part of a plant).

Even my favorite online purveyor of herbs and spices goes by the name of Penzey’s Spices.  Herbs along with other things such as Raspberry Enlightenment are simply along for the ride.

Variety can be crippling, especially to novices who may get overwhelmed by the broad palate of flavors at their disposal.  And since spices don’t last forever, it is wise to buy what you will use in relatively short order.  Do I have to mention I’m terrible about that part?  I have a tendency to hoard foodstuffs.

But there is one spice that is clearly the spice of life, and it falls on the spectrum between ajwain (which I keep on hand) and zatar (which I never get despite always wanting it).

Black pepper.

I’ve been saying for years that, “Black pepper is the spice of life” mostly just for kicks.  But it’s true.  This is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated spices at the disposal of almost every home cook.

However, when I say black pepper, I’m not talking about the stuff that comes out of the shaker at your local diner.  I suppose technically that stuff is pepper.  But the proof that it’s not is how furiously you have to shake it to give any flavor to underseasoned hash browns.

Freshly ground black peppercorns bear no resemblance to the powder that sits on checkered tablecloths.  Nor do the tins of pre-ground black pepper that have taken root in so many spice racks hold a candle to the real deal.

When you are cooking with ingredients of impeccable quality, they don’t need a lot of manipulation in the kitchen to taste great.  A dry-aged grass-fed-and-finished steak only calls for some salt and freshly ground black pepper before being thrown onto a blazingly hot pan.  The same holds true for something as simple as a perfectly poached just-laid egg.

Black pepper isn’t just for savory things either.  I once made a delicious black pepper and vanilla poached pear filled with a sweetened mascarpone.  One of my favorite chocolate truffles from L.A. Burdick is filled with lemon and black pepper.  Plus black pepper works well in cocktails, especially when added to a ginger-infused simple syrup for a deeper rounder bite.

Without black pepper, chicken stock would be flat, salads would be anemic, and red meat would lack a dimension.  Salt and pepper shrimp would just be, well…you get the idea.

There are lots of spices I would miss if they were to vanish from the face of the earth.  But there is nothing I would miss as deeply or as often as good black pepper.  It that doesn’t make it the spice of life, I don’t know what does.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 9:33 am

    This post has completely made my morning. And considering that I’m staring into the belly of a beast of a day, that’s saying a great deal. I can’t tell you how many times I have had dinner at a friend’s and they’ve cooked up something pretty extraordinary except for it’s over-spiced with something… usually nutmeg (anyone else notice that nutmeg, while often labeled a “secret ingredient”, is popping up waaaaaay too much in food lately?) it’s lacking one thing: fresh ground black pepper. I feel validated.

    Same thing at restaurants. Sure, it’s nice to have the waiter come around with his large phallus of peppercorns, but why not just throw a little in? It perfectly completes so many dishes.

    I make sure we always have fresh peppercorns in the house for grinding. Yum.

  2. mirdreams permalink
    October 12, 2010 11:17 am

    I was gifted with a jar of Raspberry Enlightenment recently and haven’t tried it yet. Any recommendations?

  3. October 12, 2010 5:13 pm

    You didn’t tell us your favorite Penzey’s black pepper. (I’m, thinking it’s tellicherry)

  4. October 12, 2010 6:54 pm

    I have never bought mail order spices. I usually buy in small quantities from the bulk section l of a local store. Honest Weight or Dean’s, usually. Other local stores have bulk spices too. Have you ever compared mail ordered black peppercorns to something locally available?

  5. Matt S permalink
    October 13, 2010 1:42 am

    Get the zatar already. A good mixture is wonderful. We make a zatar, feta, and roasted pepper pizza.

  6. October 13, 2010 11:06 pm

    I’ve preached the fresh-ground pepper gospel for decades. My family always used a pepper grinder on the table and I cannot imagine life without one. There’s really no purpose is using “black flakes,” as I’ve dubbed the pre-ground pepper, and mercilessly mock my (few remaining friends) for using the stuff. I’ve definitely converted a number of people though. Black pepper really is the greatest spice on earth; I cannot imagine life without it.

  7. October 14, 2010 7:13 am

    Want to taste Variety? Get yourself some Burger House Seasoning Salt which I’m happy to discover is now available online at http://www.burgerhouse.com/index.php/store/c/our_famous_salt/ so you don’t have to go to Dallas to get it.

    This is essentially a Greek seasoning blend which is heavy on the cumin. It helps make Jack’s burgers the world’s best but is also an asset for almost any vegetable dish.

  8. October 20, 2010 2:18 pm

    teach people about star anise, its not very well known and even the chopper has packs of it for $1

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