Thursday, October 07, 2010

Green peppercorns are not local


Green peppercorns – the unripe form of black peppercorns -- originated in Madegascar, a former French colony, and from there made it to France where I first encountered them. Some time in the early 70s, my friend Michelle in France served us steak with green peppercorns. She had evidently learned about them on a trip to Africa, and they were at the time popular with French cooks.

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the goals and limitations of confining one's food choices to locally grown food (see Local Eating). One big advantage of a wider geographic scope for cooking, I think, is that food is a very interesting window into other cultures. Without visiting Michelle, I probably wouldn't have known about green peppercorns and their African-French connections. When I returned home, my experiments with this new spice continued to provide a sense of adventure, at least in cooking and eating. (In her blog Gherkins & Tomatoes, food writer Cynthia Bertelsen touched on this recently. See Is Cooking Necessary?)

People have been broadening their horizons with new foods for thousands of years. For example, the Romans had spice routes overland and by sea to obtain black peppercorns, which were then distributed all over their European empire. Pepper, oranges, lemons, chocolate, tea -- as common as they've become, these foods give us a connection to their exotic native lands. Eating in a Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Israeli, or even a French restaurant connects us to another place. While it might be silly to buy a Mexican tomato while Michigan tomatoes are in season, a pledge to eat nothing but local food would diminish my cultural awareness, I think.

Shortly after our dinner at Michelle's home in a Paris suburb, green peppercorns became a sort of fad among American cooking magazines and newspaper columns, and I collected several recipes using them. However, green peppercorns seem to have lost their popular edge recently. Last month I wanted to revisit some of those green peppercorn recipes, and could not find the kind I like in any local food shops (not even Zingerman's had the little cans or jars of green peppercorns in brine), so I bought a dozen cans from And I've been trying both old and new recipes, and giving my surplus cans to friends.

Two of my retro recipes from the seventies:

Michelle's Steak with Green Peppercorns

Broil or charcoal grill a steak. For each person allow about 6 oz of meat, and for each one, allow 1/2 tablespoon butter and 1 tsp. green peppercorns. In a mortar, crush the green peppercorns. (Green peppercorns are often preserved in vinegar or brine. In this form, they are rather soft: to use them, you normally start by draining and then crushing them in a mortar.) Add a few drops of cognac and mash. Then cream in the butter. Optionally add 1 tsp. French Dijon mustard such as Maille brand mustard. Spread the butter mixture on each steak, and serve quickly before all the butter melts.

Pork Chops with Mustard and Green Peppercorn Sauce

8 center-cut pork chops, about 1/2 lb. each
1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. paprika
1 Tbs. oil
2/3 c. finely diced carrots
1 bay leaf
2/3 c. finely diced onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp. dried
1 c. dry white wine
1 c. chicken broth
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
1 Tbs. green peppercorns
2 Tbs. capers
Sprinkle the chops on both sides with salt and pepper to taste. Dredge in a mixture of the flour and paprika. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and brown the chops, about 5 min to a side. Pour off fat and sprinkle chops with onion, carrots, garlic, bay leaf, thyme. Add wine and broth and cover. Cook over low heat 1 hour (for the newer, leaner pork, probably a shorter cooking time -- I last made this in the seventies and pork has changed). Remove chops. Stir mustard into pan drippings and bring just to boil, but do not boil. Add remaining ingredients and pour sauce over chops. Serves 8.

Other Uses for Green Peppercorns

  • Add green peppercorns to vinaigrette dressing – crush a tsp. of peppercorns with salt, pepper, and mustard, then add 2 parts olive oil to 1 part wine vinegar; wisk together. Toss with green salad, tomatoes, or avocados.
  • Use them with white wine, for poaching fish fillets. Make a poaching liquid by simmering wine and water with green peppercorns and some dried or fresh herbs like parsley or tarragon. After poaching the fish, finish the sauce with a swirl of butter.
  • Crush the green peppercorns with garlic, a bit of oil, and fresh or dried herbs as a coating for a roast (see photo), or you can roll the mixture inside of a rolled roast such as a turkey roast. After the roast comes out of the oven, you can use the coating, pan drippings, and some wine to make a sauce for the meat.

Once you taste them, you’ll realize in which dishes you would like to replace black peppercorns with green peppercorns.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Those sound really wonderful. I'm thinking Julia used those, too. Didn't see any at Trader Joe's recently...speaking of not-local. But so good!