Black pepper is underappreciated!

Black pepper is about as ubiquitous as any spice can possibly be.  It would probably be hard to find a kitchen without it.  Sometimes is preground (yuck) and doesn’t really have much except enough heat to make you sneeze.  It’s something many probably pick up in the grocery store without thinking about it.  But, black pepper is black pepper is black pepper is not true.  It is often added as kind of an afterthought amongst other spices and herbs.

Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black PeppercornsI’ve always been picky about my black pepper–my favorite is from Penzeys.  I’ve been mail-ordering it from there for ages–and have kept on even with the local store since I’ve got my established list of herbs and spices there.

If you peruse the list of black peppers from Penzeys, you’ll find quite a selection:  India Tellicherry, India Malabar (both excellent) and then there’s the Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns.  True more expensive than either of the others, but worth every penny more.

However, as much as I liked black pepper (over eggs, in mashed potatoes, with strawberries, balsamic, and black pepper), I didn’t really appreciate black pepper as the main seasoning until I made fårikål.  The seasoning is black pepper!  Lots of whole black peppercorns that cook right with the cabbage and the lamb. And should get eaten rather than picked out; after the long cooking they still have some tooth but are soft enough to eat easily and the flavor is just amazing.

Black pepper is worth exploring as something other than an add-on to other herbs and spices.  It should always be bought whole rather than ground or cracked.  While you can spend a small fortune of a pepper mill, you can also get a reasonably inexpensive one.  It will open a whole new world of flavor.  The highly recommended mill from America’s Test Kitchen was from Cole and Mason, and surprisingly, very reasonably priced.

Another tasty dish featuring lots of black pepper that you should make once you have some really good black whole peppercorns to go with you pepper mill is cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta).  But do try it with good ripe strawberries, too.  Or on a lusciously ripe muskmelon or watermelon.

A son gôut!

—Ô¿Ô—

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A cucumber is a cucumber is a….

Another summer delight is the cucumber.  I know–they’re available year-round in the supermarket, but my favorites seldom show up in good condition in the market except at the farmers’ market during the summer, because I can get something besides the “slicing” cucumber (though that will do in a pinch).

short chubby pickling cucumber with typical coloration

pickling cucumber

I like my cukes to be drier and without pronounced seeds, so I use pickling cucumbers to eat instead of the “slicing” or “field” cucumber.   During the winter, I’ll use the English (the big long ones in the plastic wrap) or the “baby” cucumbers since they have less developed seeds–and I can’t see having to scrape out that much of my cucumber.  A less watery cucumber (than the slicer) is desirable since I like to put them into cucumber and tomato salads, white bean salads, macaroni salads and all sorts of things like that–they are so cool and crunchy. I really don’t want to scrape out the seeds and salt to remove water!

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cut Amira cucumber with small seed cavity and seeds

the Amira cucumber

Until recently, I’d been using pickling cucumbers, but a friend has introduced me to the Amira cucumber which she has grown in her garden regularly for some years; it’s now become my new favorite cucumber! Long, slender, with a deep green, thin skin, and seeds that are not very pronounced at all, and it is without the one downside of the pickling cucumber–a tendency to bitterness, especially in hot, dry weather. I’ll be planting some of these next summer, to take the place of the Diva (a slicer that does not need more than one plant to set fruit) cucumbers that I have been planting for the last few years.

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Cucumbers are a member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae)which also includes squash, gourds, and melons. Cucumbers come in three main types: commonly called field or “slicers”, pickling, and “hothouse” or English cucumbers.

  • The American slicing (also garden, salad,  or field cucumbers) have a thicker skin and are usually waxed (for the supermarket) to prevent dehydration.  Since the skin is thicker, I prefer these peeled and because of the larger seeds which may be bitter and tough, and likely will need to be scraped out. These are a “wetter” cucumber and need to be salted to draw out excess moisture before use in salads. (Sorry, no pictures since I don’t have any of those around the house!) In the supermarket, these are the loose ones, with the waxed skin.
  • The pickling cucumber is noticeably different from the slicing or salad cucumber–there are gradations of color, and the skin is bumpy. These are usually shorter and chunkier than slicing or salad cucumbers, but they are perfectly good to use in place of slicing cucumbers.  (These will include gherkin and cornichon types which are smaller than other varieties of pickling cucumbers.)  When these are found in the supermarket, they usually seem to be dehydrated, since they are not waxed.
  • The English, Japanese, or “hothouse” cucumbers, which are longer and skinnier, and have small seed cavity and small seeds that don’t need to be scraped out. These are sometimes called “burpless” since they do not contain some of the compounds in the skin which can cause digestive distress to some people. These are found wrapped in plastic instead of waxed; the skin is thin so they don’t need to be peeled.

Favorite things to do with summer cucumbers include cucumber sandwiches, tomato and cucumber salad (with onion and herbs) as a side dish, or add cheese (maybe feta or ricotta salata) for a light meal (especially with fresh bread to soak up the juice), and I like to add them to other summer salads like white bean salad or pasta salad.  Slices are great as a crudity with hummus or other dip (baba ganoush). Then there’s that dish of cucumbers and onions, thinly sliced with a bit of sugar and vinegar and marinated.  Or combine them with yoghurt or sour cream, or even make a cold cucumber soup that’s easy and refreshing.

Recipes for cucumber salads or soups can be found on the web or in most cookbooks, but I’d especially recommend one of the vegetable cookbooks listed in the bibliography–Marian Morash’s The Victory Garden Cookbook, pages 92-101 for cucumber basics and some more novel uses such as sautéed  cucumber, and even baked stuffed cucumbers.

pickling and Amira cucumbers side by side

Amira and pickling cucumbers

Cool pink things for summer

After the wonderful strawberry ice cream yesterday afternoon, I more “cool pink” for supper: watermelon with feta cheese and mint.

It’s right up there with beet soup for a refreshing summer meal or side dish.  I probably should not even call it a salad:  no dressing or anything except the natural juices.  I’ve seen suggestions for dressings such as buttermilk/lime, but I’ve not tried that–have some buttermilk in the fridge so maybe I’ll taste it with that  when I make more this afternoon.

There really is no recipe for this:

  •  watermelon, cut into pieces or cut with  melon-baller.  Use however much you think you might eat–I usually add some extra  because I will usually eat more.
  • mint–preferably spearmint  (Kentucky Colonel is especially good), chopped medium or cut into chiffonade–several sprigs
  • feta cheese–your favorite feta cheese, cut into small cubes or crumbled.
Toss the watermelon and the mint and let this chill in the refrigerator for about an hour.  You want the mint and melon to “meld”–if you don’t do this, you get separate flavors of mint and melon (which is not bad either) instead of something like mintmelonmint.  After this melding, add the feta cheese, and eat!
If the melon stands with the feta cheese, the texture of the melon becomes a bit soggy, presumable from the salt in the feta cheese,  so it’s best made freshly.  You can let the mint/melon mix stand in the fridge longer, though.
I suspect that other salty cheese could be substituted for the feta–e.g. pecorino or some of the Greek cheeses.