Dec 10, 2013

Peppery Preparations

Gray skies, snowflakes, red berries, the vague outline of trees, the cold dregs of coffee, the scent of fir. Can you tell I'm mixed up about how I feel? December is at once depressing and delightful, dark and twinkling, exhausting and joyful. To sum it up, last night I had a dream where a talking snake said: "we have to search for the sparkly places."

Auspicious? Perhaps.

My passport is now in the hands of the Indian and Thai consulates (fingers crossed that I spelled my name right). In the meantime I try to collect the things I need for my trip; read strange stories about Ms Yingluck and the Thai government, do the laundry, buy Christmas presents, watch the snow fall, make onion soup.

Today, picking up my veritable bucket of anti-malaria medication for the upcoming trip, I got to chatting with the pharmacist - a warm, Indian man with a curling mustache. He said he hoped I was going to Goa, and when I said I was he said, "Oh, you must try the cashew liquor. And hold onto your wallet."

One reason I am traveling to India, and to South India in particular, is to learn about the black pepper industry there. Two types of pepper are native to the southern coast of India: Malabar and Tellicherry. Unfortunately, the International Pepper Exchange, based in Kochi India (the final stop on the tour!) has gone on-line. Otherwise I'd be thrilled to report live from the Pepper Exchange headquarters. Even still, there is so much I have to learn about pepper. I could spout plenty of statistics right now that I've learned on the internet and in my spice books, but I'd so much prefer to follow up on this topic from the botanical origin of peppercorns.

Tellicherry is not just a type of peppercorn but also a place, more commonly called Thasselary in Kerela, India. Tellicherry pepper has become so renowned for its flavor that it is now considered to be one of the most popular "terroir" peppercorns - in other words, a peppercorn renowned for the place on earth where it grows. It's got a fresh, citrusy taste that has mild heat and a floral background. Serious Eats did an excellent taste-testing report on peppercorns (including Tellicherry!) with Lior lev Sercarz, a spice blender in NYC I got to know through my work at Sofra Bakery. While I hope to do some taste testing too, I'm thrilled to be on the brink of visiting some of the very places where these spices (such as Tellicherry Pepper) grow in order to get a fuller, brighter vision of the story they can tell. Ever since traveling to Greece to help harvest saffron in the fields of Macedonia, I've realized that my spice journey has only just begun.

In the meantime, as I continue to put all the tiny pieces together to ensure a safe trip (travelers! please send suggestions!) I make soup and watch the snow fall and listen to my favorite Christmas songs. Soon I'll be off to sparkly places...

Onion & Porcini Soup with Tellicherry Pepper

I adapted this recipe from Deb Perleman's recipe for French Onion soup on her blog, Smitten Kitchen, and she adapted it from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So this recipe has great roots. I find Deb's recipes accessible and delicious. My adaptation is vegetarian and can be made as spicy as you like based on how much Tellicherry pepper you add. Tellicherry is wonderful in this recipe because the citrusy quality cuts the buttery flavor of the onions and mushrooms and lifts the overall flavor of the soup. I like it quite peppery, but add as you go for your own liking. This soup is a bit time consuming but is worth every single minute. 

5 cups thinly sliced onions (about 1 1/2 lbs onions)
3 TB unsalted butter
1 TB olive oil
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/4 tsp sugar (to help the onions brown)
3 TB all-purpose flour
2 quarts vegetable broth
1 tsp tellicherry black peppercorns, crushed
1 oz dried porcini mushroom (or any mixture of dried wild mushrooms)
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
freshly ground Tellicherry pepper to taste

To garnish:
3-4 pieces french bread (per person)
grated cheese such as Gruyere, swiss, or Compte


In a large, heavy bottomed pot, begin by melting your butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir to coat them in the butter and olive oil. Turn the heat down very low and cover to cook for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium size saucepan place your stock, dried mushrooms and crushed pepper. Heat over low heat, stirring as it begins to simmer so all of the dried mushrooms are immersed. Keep warm over low heat.

After 15 minutes, remove the cover on the onions and add the salt and sugar. Cook the onions, stirring often, for 30-40 minutes until they've caramelized and turned an even brown color. While the onions are cooking, fetch the mushrooms out of the stock with a slotted spoon or small sieve. Place them on a cutting board, and once cool enough to the touch, chop them roughly into small pieces and add them back to the stock. This will be a bit messy but just embrace it. Keep paying attention to the onions while you chop the mushrooms.

Once the onions are fully caramelized (it does take time!!) add the flour and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in all the wine and then begin to add the mushroom stock a cup or so at a time, stirring as you go. When you get near the bottom of the stock pot leave about 1/4 cup at the bottom because it is likely a bit sandy from the dried mushrooms. Alternatively you can strain it through cheesecloth.
Add freshly ground pepper and salt to taste. Stir to incorporate. 

For the cheesy toast garnish:
Toast the french bread first until it's quite hard, then sprinkle with grated cheese and place in a hot oven or toaster oven until cheese is melted. Add the cheesy toasts on top of the soup just before serving.

1 comment:

  1. Yum! I'm so excited for your up-coming adventures to sparkly. Remember, if you need to store bulk spices from your travels you can just send them right to my address!