Apr 22, 2015

Not peppercorns

They aren't peppercorns, but they have a peppery flavor. They aren't pink, exactly, but rather red. Still, we call them "pink peppercorns" and the French call them baie rose which means "pink berry." In the U.S. we have a frozen yogurt company called Pink Berry, but as far as I know this spice is not available as a topping. But! If they only knew...

...that the berries of Schinus molle, or Schinus terebinthifolius, both species of the cashew tree family, have an incredible floral flavor - sweetly rosy and peppery - but without the hot bite of true peppercorns. I would go to Pink Berry immediately if I knew they had spices like this as a topping. But they aren't just good on ice-cream —

My first taste of pink pepper goes back almost a decade, to Milan, Italy, where I ate beef Carpaccio with pink peppercorns. My friend Sarah and I had been traveling throughout Europe on a shoe-string adventure that had taken us from couches in Slovakia to noisy hostels in Sicily and then up the coast of Italy to Milan where we stayed with a family who lived next door to Giorgio Armani. It was an upgrade, for sure.

The father figure of the family was an antiques collector, from cigarette lighters to coffee brewers, and I remember at the time that he had started collecting Chinese Wedding Helmets  and had them spread out all over the dining room table and floor.

One evening during our stay he approached us and said, "I apologize that I can't cook, and my wife is away, but I'd like to take you to dinner." So off we went to a little restaurant around the corner where he rattled off some things in Italian to the server and the two of us, Sarah and I, sat there somewhat awkwardly trying to make conversation with this father figure who collected helmets and lighters, who we barely knew. But then the appetizers arrived: some kind of vegetable dish for Sarah (who has been vegetarian for pretty much all her life. bless her.) and beef Carpaccio for me (and Father Figure.)

Having never had this beef dish (named after the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio), I didn't know what to think. It was PINK (read: raw) and looked odd. But that didn't stop me; before digging in I asked: "what are these?" pointing with my fork to the red berry-like things spread out all over the meat, somehow matching the color of the raw beef. He told me they were pink peppercorns, and I never looked back.

Place a pine needle, a raspberry, a single black peppercorn and a freshly plucked rose on a spoon and you have the flavor of pink pepper. More or less. It's a beautiful and unusual flavor, and that first taste of it in Italy was breathtaking. The dish was so simple but has stayed vividly perched in my mind ever since that evening.

The pink pepper tree originated in Peru (and Brazil) although they even grow in California where they are called "California Pepper tree" (and while post-card worthy, are cursed for hosting a pest that damages orange trees). The berries are called "peppercorns" because their dried shape is similar to the dried fruit of Piper nigrum species, despite being totally unrelated. The pink berries also have a characteristically peppery taste, further justifying the misnomer. Pink peppercorns can be seen mixed into four-color peppercorn mixes that contain black, white and green pepper, but this won't give you the joy of the pure pink. And plus, the pink ones are impostors, being related to the cashew tree as opposed to the pepper vine. The tree is large, growing up to 30 feet, and while native to Central and South America, the tree is considered "invasive" and has started growing in Florida and California, pushing out other native species.  Despite this negative connotation, the essential oil from the berries has been used for medicine and perfume for centuries, and even today is praised for its antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties.

You may need one of these Chinese helmets if you've never tasted these fine berries before (because the flavor will make your head explode), but if you have tasted them before, please share your story! How have you cooked with them?

Here's to celebrating spring with these flowery non-peppercorns.

Tips for using Pink "Peppercorns:"

I like to think of using this spice more like an herb, since it has a delicate but distinct flavor that will brighten any dish. Like fresh herbs they are best used at the end of cooking (like a garnish), but can be cooked too, and will hold their flavor better than fresh herbs. Here are some ideas:

- Cast a handful of them on top of a grain salad, with a lemony dressing.
- Sprinkle over grilled fish 
- Crush and sprinkle on top of fruit salad, cut cantaloupe or Pink Berry(TM) frozen yogurt (ha!)
- Mix into your steak tartar recipe, or of course onto carpaccio
- Crush a few in the bottom of your glass before making a gin & tonic. BEAUTIFUL.
- or make the following recipe...

Butternut Squash Pizza with Salted Ricotta & Pink peppercorns

Here in Boston we are in a slow transition from "the worst winter in history" to spring. YES SPRING IS NOT JUST A WORD BUT A REALITY! I am enjoying a few spring veggies coming from local greenhouses, but I'm also trying to use up my winter pantry items, such as the beloved butternut squash, which have taken up a sizable residence in my kitchen. I'm not sick of them yet! Try making this colorful pizza as an appetizer for a party, or as a main dish on a weeknight. The pink pepper is essential to the harmony of flavors in this pizza.


1 pizza dough (pre made)
2 cups thinly sliced & steamed butternut squash
2 cup chopped kale (about 4 big leaves)
1/4 cup TB olive oil
1 shallot
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup goat cheese
1/4 cup pink pepper

Heat oven (with pizza stone, if you have one) to 500 degrees F. In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta and salt.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add half the olive oil. When it begins to shimmer, add the shallot and garlic and cook until fragrant and slightly browned at edges. Add the chopped kale and stir until just wilted. Turn off heat.

Roll out the pizza dough, and place on a pizza peel (with cornmeal) or on a pizza pan if you don't have a stone. Smear with remaining olive oil, then evenly spread with sliced butternut squash. Top with sautéed kale, ricotta cheese and crumbled goat cheese. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until done. Top with pink pepper.

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