Black Magic: The delicious power of freshly ground pepper

Sacks of mysterious ingredients, hissing clouds of steam and curious books of recipes – a modern kitchen could easily be mistaken for the lair of a medieval magician. Alchemy is, after all, similar to cookery. Both magicians and cooks seek to transform everyday elements into astonishing spectacles. We obscure the simplicity with murky fogs of mumbo jumbo. And, like the alchemists of old, we rely heavily on magic powders. The power of salt is undisputed, so let’s turn to its often-neglected companion, black pepper. Not the dusty-tasting gray sand ostensibly labeled “ground pepper” at the supermarket. Rather, the kitchen magician will always use freshly ground peppercorns. Like any spice, black pepper’s shelf life is limited, so buy good-quality peppercorns from a merchant whose products see quick turnover. Then, grind the peppercorns, not too fine, directly into whatever you’re cooking. The magic will work every time. Some foods cry out for black pepper. Dumplings, noodles and other starchy foods need its sharpness to liven up their serene solidity. The baked potato would never have conquered the Western world without its requisite adornment of coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Meats, too, often need pepper. Think of steak au poivre. The beef’s combination of earthy meatiness and unctuous marbling of fat is brought into perfect balance with a counterpoint of sharp cracked peppercorns. Our American bird, the turkey, so often bland and dry, receives new life when peppered. Even pork benefits from a dusting of the magic powder. All these are traditional black pepper pairings. But as modern-day alchemists brandish their pepper grinders, dusting anything and everything with the piquant powder, they’ve turned up some surprising uses, too. Fruits, for example, are all the better for a dash of coarsely ground black pepper. Strawberries and raspberries contain hints of pepper, which reveal themselves when you add a little of the real thing. It also makes apples and pears sweeter by contrast. Black pepper’s affinity for citrus has long been recognized. (Think lemon pepper.) Cantaloupes, especially the famed Charentais, are brought to an even more perfect lusciousness in the classic trio of melon, Parma ham and black pepper. Caleb Melchior livens up the winter months with mouth-tingling flavors at home in Perry County.