Green peppercorns. If you’ve ever used this ingredient, you probably got it out of a bottle. Soaked in brine. Its taste and aroma irreversibly altered by the long salty bath.
I never knew the taste of fresh green peppercorns until I came across them in Paris. Not at one of the supermarchés nor the food sections of the big fancy department stores, but at an Asian market in the 5th arrondissement (Quartier Latin), a few blocks across the Seine from the Notre Dame. The 13th arrondissement is where you usually find “authentic” Asian treats and their makings.
A package of twigs of little green globules tightly imprisoned in two layers of plastic lay next to familiar snow peas, equally bound. The green globules looked so beautiful, I had to pick up the package out of curiosity. Green peppercorns, says the label. I was seduced: Beauty sells. €1.50 for, perhaps, a dozen six-inch twigs (or sprigs, if you insist on culinary lingo)—a small price, if this exotic ingredient proves to be a mistake.
So, I took them home.
What to do with them. I was so eager to try them, I didn’t bother to look them up on the Internet. They’re peppercorns. What disaster could happen? So, I washed a twig, popped a few globules in a packaged soup of leeks with shrimp, and tasted the soup. Nothing. So, I put in a whole twig’s worth, crushed another half twig’s worth and dumped that in, too. My mouth has been burned by Thai and Indian dishes and I endured them. At most, I could open another soup package.
The soup was mildly peppery—the leeks not at all overwhelmed by the peppercorns. So I took it to the dinner table with a small cup of crème crue (fresh cream, heated but not pasteurized; essentially raw) we picked up at La Ferme Saint Aubin, a neighborhood fromagerie. The soup was delicious, much better than the onion soup I had at the restaurant at Musée d’Orsay. (An aside, eat or, better still, just have tea here for the beautiful room and its ambience. As for the food, we’ve definitely tasted better.)
Nobody would have guessed the soup came from a package. Specks of green leeks and peppercorns made it look appetizing but it wins for its smooth delicious unctuousness.
Fresh green peppercorns have an affinity to cream and the two beautifully complement each other. The “experience” you get from these tiny corns comes from biting into them whole. Raw, they are assertively peppery but with a freshness you can never get from dried black ones. They are, in fact, the same but at different levels of ripeness. Cooked, they turn mild, stay whole, and leave just a hint of their presence in the sauce or soup. I mixed some twigs with lamb curry and the rest I later stir fried with garlic and sliced mushrooms to sauce bean thread noodles. Fresh green peppercorns are used generously in Thai dishes.
Our other purchase at this Asian market is a fruit some Americans may know, but by the name cherimoya. Here, it comes from Spain and they call it anones. This is a fruit from my childhood although the variety (Annona squamosa) I am familiar with has oblong bumbles all over it. The kind (Annona cherimola) Westerners know is relatively flat around its heart-shaped surface.
You cut this fruit in half and scoop the flesh with a spoon like you would half a grapefruit. But beware. The juicy custardy sweet flesh cradles black seeds the size of, maybe, a shelled pistachio. They’re hard and smooth and easy to spit out. We used to play with them when we were kids, spitting them out like little missiles. Anyway, this is fruit like no other the west offers, a taste treat that more than makes up for the effort of collecting the seeds on the side of your plate.