Pepper-Upper

More than fresh produce, or lack thereof, warming spices define seasonal treats as we enter the winter months. Crystallized ginger dances in soft cookies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, while nutmeg frosts the top of frothy eggnog glasses. Clove and allspice infuse warm pumpkin pies, but what about a flavor that will really spice things up? Sichuan peppercorns aren’t exactly a typical taste for the holidays, but considering their zest and uncanny ability to lift the spirits, they deserve a place of honor at your next fête.

Still a somewhat obscure ingredient in the US that may not feature prominently at your mainstream supermarket, both green and red peppercorns have become much more widely available in recent years. Up until 2005, they were actually banned from import into the US, so unless you had access to the black market, you were out of luck. Now, like everything else it seems, they’re easy to find online, if local specialty stores can’t keep the shelves stocked.

Green Sichuan peppercorns are simply unripe berries harvested from the same vine that produces red pepper berries. They bear the same pungency found in the other peppercorns, with hints of citrus and a more earthy aroma. True red peppercorns are left much longer to ripen and dry in the sun. Their real claim to fame, however, is less about their flavor, and more about their effect. The distinctive tingling, mouth-numbing experience is unmistakable, transcending the normal understanding of what constitutes spice. It’s not exactly hot in the conventional sense, but certainly not bland in the least.

Why not apply that unique taste to more festive treats? For something that will take the bite out of winter’s chill and reinvigorate the weary spirit, go ahead and throw a pinch of this secret ingredient into any dish, really. Use it instead of that boring old black pepper and watch your cooking come to life.

If you’d prefer a more measured integration, consider the classic candied almond. Perfect for last-minute gifts, host/ess presents, easy appetizers, or late night snacks, there’s nothing a lovely lacquered nut can’t do. Crisply toasted with caramelized brown sugar, infused with a touch of molasses sweetness, you could stop right there and have a delightful, if basic, little morsel. Add in orange zest and the punch of Sichuan peppercorns to elevate each crunchy nut to a whole new level. Soy sauce instead of pure sodium lends a savory, lightly salty hit at the end.

Bask in the culinary glow of warming spices, and consider adding Sichuan peppercorns into your permanent seasoning lineup. A little pinch goes a long way.

Continue reading “Pepper-Upper”

Clear-Cut

Alinea set the internet on fire once again with another avant-garde culinary masterpiece, drawing on the pumpkin spice craze to further propel it into a viral hit. Perfectly clear pumpkin pie, glossy and ethereal, gently quavered in the brief Instagram video, a tiny wedge being turned over and examined by a disembodied hand. Mesmerizing, confounding, the attraction is instant and irresistible.

#surrealism, indeed.

I tried to look away, to ignore the hype, but curiosity got the best of me, as it always does. A homemade rendition would never be able to stand up to the original for lack of fancy equipment, unless you happen to have a centrifuge and rotary-evaporator lying around to extract clear, condensed liquid from pumpkin puree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with the concept. Drawing inspiration from this wild idea and combining it with the pumpkin spice trend that ignores the actual gourd, my take is admittedly more translucent than transparent, but nonetheless a whimsical departure from the ordinary orange slice.

Translucent Pumpkin Spice Pie

1 (8-Inch) Graham Cracker Crust, Baked
3 Cups Water
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons Pumpkin Spice Extract
1 Tablespoon Agar Powder
1/8 Teaspoon Salt

Combine the water, sugar, pumpkin spice extract, agar, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk periodically until the sugar has fully dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil and cook for 2 more minutes. Gently pour the mixture into your prepared crust so as not to kick up lots of loose crumbs. Let the pie cool to room temperature before moving it into the fridge to chill. Once fully set (about 1 to 2 hours), slice and serve!

Makes 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

Mastering the Art of Curry

Ever the skeptic, expectations remained firmly at ground-level right up until the sturdy packing tape was sliced open, revealing a true gem of a holiday gift, securely wrapped in that unassuming cardboard box. Sure, I knew more or less what I was getting when I agreed to investigate the lavish assortment of spices included in the Kitchen Master Curry Kit, but that’s all I had pictured: Loose, uninspiring ingredients, assembled for convenience. Never have I been more pleased to admit being wrong. Complete with a full compliment of pungent, piquant, and bold seasonings, the inclusion of a gleaming stainless steel masala dabba and curry cookbook transform the set into something special. Admiring those exotic flavorings tucked neatly inside their metal compartments, it’s impossible not to feel a growing hunger for some new kitchen experimentation.

Lifting the lid yields a fresh cascade of intoxicating spice aromas, shifting and mingling in different ways with every breath. Even without the colorfully illustrated cookbook, packed with more tempting suggestions than your average Indian takeout menu, any curious cook would be powerless to resist this savory siren song. Granted, the cookbook is not vegan nor does it make any allusions of being so, but it does include helpful notations for those conscious of gluten, plus an indication of spice levels to better suit individual preferences. What it succeeds in beautifully is simplifying essential Indian dishes that are all too often misinterpreted with generic “curry powder,” rather than the nuanced blend of spices that provide their true character.

For the first time ever, my biryani rice (otherwise referred to as “Spicy Rice“) actually tasted like something I might get from a restaurant. The secret ingredient seems to be whole fenugreek seed, an addition that had never before graced my spice pantry. For the true novice, online video tutorials are there to hold your hand, ensuring success for cooks of all skill levels.

Discovering the foundation of classical curry seasonings unlocks a whole world of flavor, no matter what sort of diet the guidebook is written for. Easily adapting the recipe for kefta kebabs (“ground beef or lamb kebabs“) to employ homemade seitan rather than meat, those bold spices shone as brightly as ever in my veganized rendition. Paired with a quick and easy tahini sauce, it could have rivaled any restaurant offerings, if I do say so myself. They may not be the most beautiful of kebabs, but they sure do make up for their lacking visual impressions with an abundance of fragrant, spicy flavors that positively dance on the tongue.

Since it’s the season of giving, consider the Kitchen Master Curry Kit a prime option for any food lover on your list. In case you need further convincing, the whole bundle is currently on sale in the official online store, and I have an additional discount to share with you, my spicy readers. Enter the code “Q5GBI6501A5B” for an extra $11.50 off; enough to easily justify a purchase for someone you love, and perhaps for yourself, too.