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Meet the colorful peppercorns.

Salt's cohort, black pepper, is the most familiar pepper on the grocer's shelf, sold ground or whole as peppercorns. Recently, though, many other peppercorns have found their way into Western markets. Each is peppery, yet each has its own properties. To use them well, you need to know how they differ.

The characteristics of these peppers come from the plants that bear them, the degree of maturity at harvest, and what preservation method is used.

Green, black, and white peppercorns are berries of the same tropical vine--Piper nigrum--native to India.

The green are immature berries and taste mildest. They're sold freeze-dried or canned in brine. Brined peppercorns are tender to bite--a little firmer than capers. Freeze-dried, they're almost hollow, with a brittle, papery shell.

Black peppercorns are berries harvested slightly underripe, then dried until they shrivel. These have the most potent flavor.

White peppercorns are picked fully mature, dried, then decorticated (hulls are removed). Their heat is about midway between green and black.

Pink peppercorns come from a different vine (although berries of Piper nigrum do go through a pink phase). These are from an ornamental tree called California pepper (Schinus molle); they're sold freeze-dried or canned in brine and have mild heat and a sweet-hot flowery flavor. Freeze-dried, their texture is even more papery than that of freeze-dried green peppercorns. In brine, their color is more drab, their texture about like that of capers. Like many foods, pink peppercorns may cause allergic reactions and should be tried cautiously at first.

Szechwan peppercorns, brown in color, are the dried berries of an Asian shrub (Zanthoxylum piperitum). Look for these in Oriental markets. They lend delicate heat and a distinctive perfume to the Chinese seasoning blend, five spice.

Paradoxically, each pepper's flavor is tasted most distinctly if you slightly subdue its potency, as these recipes do--with coolness, cream, neutral flavor accompaniments, even complementary sweetness. Pineapple with Sour Cream, Colored Pepper, and Honey

Serve as a first course, or for lunch with tiny sandwiches of tongue or baked ham. 1 small (about 3 lb.) ripe pineapple, peeled 1-1/2 cups sour cream 2 tablespoons canned or freeze-dried green or pink peppercorns 1/4 cup mild honey Watercress or mint sprigs

Cut pineapple crosswise into 18 slices. To assemble each salad, arrange 3 slices of fruit on a salad plate, top with 1/4 cup sour cream, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon pepper. Drizzle with honey and garnish with watercress. Makes l servings. Multicolored Pepper Pasta

Here's a quick appetizer or entree. 1/2 to 1 teaspoon each white and black peppercorns 1 teaspoon each Szechwan and freeze-dried or canned pink and green peppercorns 1 cup each regular-strength chicken broth, dry white wine, and whipping cream 4 quarts water 1 pound dried vermicelli or capellini 1 cup (about 5 oz.) shredded or grated Parmesan cheese

In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, combine peppercorns, broth, wine, and cream. Boil over high heat, stirring, until reduced by half, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a 5- to 6-quart pan; cook pasta in boiling water, uncovered, until tender to bite, about 9 minutes. Drain and mound pasta in a warm serving bowl; pour pepper sauce over pasta. Add 1/2 cup cheese; mix well. Offer remaining cheese to add individually. Serves 4 or 5 as an entree, 7 or 8 as an appetizer. Avocado with Pastel Pepper

This makes and elegant dinner opening. 1/2 cup salad oil 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 2 to 3 tablespoons canned or freeze-dried pink or green peppercorns 3 or 4 medium-size ripe avocados Cilantro (fresh coriander) sprigs

Combine oil, vineger, and peppercorns. Cut avocados in half lengthwise; remove pits. Set avocados on salad plates, pit side up. Spoon dressing evenly into wells and over cut surface of avocados; garnish with cilantro. Serves 6 or 8. Chicken Breasts au Poivre

Sauteeing takes some heat out of pepper and emphasizes its spiciness.

Skin, bone, and halve 3 whole chicken breasts (about 3 lb.). With a flat-surfaced mallet, pound pieces between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap to 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle each side of chicken with 1/4 teaspoon crushed black or white peppercorns or 3/4 teaspoon crushed dried pink, green, or Szechwan peppercorns. Lightly pound pepper into meat. (If made ahead, cover and chill up to overnight.)

In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter or margarine over high heat. Add as many chicken pieces as will fit in pan; cook, turning once, until white in center (cut to test), about 30 seconds per side. Lift out chicken and set on a warm platter; keep hot. Cook remaining chicken. Add butter or margarine, 1 tablespoon at a time, as needed.

To pan drippings, add 3/4 cup madeira or dry sherry. Scrape pan bottom to loosen browned bits. Add 3/4 cup whipping cream and 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried rosemary. Boil, stirring, until reduced by half. Pour over chicken. Serves 6. Potato and Pepper Casserole

Delicious with a plain roast, this could also be served as a first course.

Cut 1-1/4 pounds scrubbed or peeled thin-skinned potatoes into 1/4-inch cubes. Put into a well-buttered 1-1/2- to 2-quart shallow baking dish. Add 1 medium-size onion (finely chopped), 1-1/2 teaspoons crushed white or black peppercorns, and 1 cup whipping cream; stir to mix, and spread to level. Bake, uncovered, at 400[deg.] until potatoes are soft enough to mash and are beginning to brown on top, about 1 hour. Add salt to taste. Serves 4 to 6. Black Pepper Cookies

The pepper's hot taste builds as you nibble the cookies; a juicy pear and a glass of port will temper it. 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 cup sugar 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns, coarsely crushed 1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine Black peppercorns

In a food processor with a metal blade, or with a fork, blend flour, baking powder, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the crushed pepper. In a 1- to 2-quart pan, stir butter over medium heat until it browns (stir through white foam to test). Add to flour mixture and process until dough forms compact ball, about 1-1/2 minutes. Or stir in butter with fork, then work dough with your hands to form a smooth-textured ball.

Pinch off 1-inch pieces of dough and shape into balls. Arrange balls, slightly apart, on an ungreased 12- by 15-inch baking sheet. Dip the bottom of a glass into remaining sugar and press each ball gently to 1/2-inch thickness. Press a peppercorn into center of each.

Bake on the lowest rack of a 300[deg.] oven until browned on the bottom, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool completely. Serve, or store airtight up to 3 days, freeze to store longer. Makes about i dozen.
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Title Annotation:includes recipes
Date:Nov 1, 1984
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