Forget arugula. The true symbol of how far American cooking has come in the past 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. 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.
The 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. But black pepper has benefited most from the new awareness that terroir matters, as much with food as with wine. The all-purpose berries sold as "black pepper" may add heat. If you want nuance and resonance, you need a "varietal."
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.
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 Borneo, is just that.
Generally, you can use all peppercorns interchangeably at the table. For cooking, however, some are better suited to dessert.
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. 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.
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 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.
Sarawak peppercorns, which are air-dried indoors and retain more flavor, are also exceptional.
Vietnam produces exceptional white pepper and is becoming a leading exporter of black peppercorns. Its peppercorns have an aroma that is more complex than strong. The heat and flavor are just as rounded.
Peppercorns from Ecuador have a sweet, searing fragrance and intense heat; it seems as if you feel them more than taste them.
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 the dish just before serving. But you can do so much more, with sweet as well as with savory recipes. A pinch of black pepper in a pumpkin pie filling or gingerbread batter will add a pungent undertone. But as much as a quarter-cup mixed with panko will create a vibrant, crunchy crust for seared lamb or pork chops.
Peppercorns, whole or crushed, are also easy to use to infuse sauces, such as a custard-y sabayon to spoon over steamed green beans or grilled fish. Add them to port and poached pears for a lively but light dessert.
Black pepper is also underutilized in baking. It suits any yeast-bread dough, 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.
Regina Schrambling wrote this story for the Los Angeles Times.
A recipe for Pepper-Parmesan Bread can be found at baltimoresun.com/taste.