Showing posts with label toxic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label toxic. Show all posts

Nov 14, 2016

Ingredients: Pink Peppercorns

Pink peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. They are the dried fruits of two trees native to Brazil (Schinus terebinthi­folius) and Peru (Schinus molle).  Nouvelle cuisine gave rise to pink peppercorns' popularity in the 80's as a colorful garnish or a part of a decorative blend of white, black, and green peppercorns.

Popular 80's Gourmet Multicolored Peppercorn Mix
Pink pepper­corns are named for their shape not for their flavor. They are not particularly pungent, but rather mild and a bit sweet. Pink peppercorns should not be confused with the true ripe red peppercorns from the Piper nigrum vine that have a muted red or brownish hue and a distinctive peppery pungency. Both pink peppercorns and true red peppercorns are available either dried, freeze dried, or pickled in brine. True dried or freeze dried ripe red peppercorns are a very rare and expensive spice. 

Schinus molle fruit and leaves
Pink peppercorns are the dried fruits of two trees native to Brazil (Schinus terebinthi­folius) and Peru (Schinus molle).  Schinus molle is commonly known as the California peppertree, the Brazil peppertree, and the Peruvian peppertree. To add to the confusion the closely related Schinus terebinthi­folius tree is also called  Brazilian peppertree, the broadleaved peppertree, Florida holly, and Christmasberry. The Schinus genus is a member of the Anacardiaceae family which means both trees are related to cashews, pistachios, and mangoes. No sizable amount of the problematic and inflammatory uroshiols common to the Anacardiaceae family have been found in pink peppercorns. However, it is recommended that those suffering nut allergies should avoid pink peppercorns. The fruit and leaves of both Schinus Molle and Schinus terebinthi­folius have been reported to be potentially poisonous to poultry, pigs and possibly calves.

Schinus terebinthi­folius fruit and leaves

The Schinus molle tree is a common sight across California. You will commonly see them growing in groves around old Spanish missions in California. It was once mistakenly thought to be a California native before it was determined that Spanish priests and settlers brought the seeds from Peru and planted them. The Spanish prized the strong wood of the trees for use in making saddles. The long lived and prolific trees did indeed thrive in California's hot and arid climate. They have now become an invasive pest threatening native species in California, Florida, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Australia.

A Schinus molle tree breaking up the sidewalk in San Francisco
Pink peppercorn trees are actually very beautiful with graceful, willowy branches, gnarled bark, and bright red clusters of fruits. Unfortunately nothing will grow under them. You'll have a continuous carpet of semi evergreen leaves that drop year round and pink peppercorns that freely reseed EVERYWHERE. 

Textured Trunk of Schinus molle
Pink peppercorn trees also grow quite fast with their beautifully gnarled trunks reaching up to six feet in diameter. Their roots grow large and near the surface so they will break up concrete side walks and expensive in-ground swimming pools. I have fond memories of peppercorn tees in California though. No matter how hot and dry it was the peppertrees would always be bright and green. I loved the brittle crunch of pink peppercorns under foot and their light peppery fragrance. We used to make wreaths, garlands, and table centerpieces out of their brilliant red peppercorns and bright green leaves for Fall and Winter holidays. 
Gourmet Food Fad of the 80's- "Peppercorn Medley"
What do dried pink peppercorns taste like? Not much of anything really. I've heard their flavor described as delicate, fruity, berry-like, sweet, chili-like, aromatic, juniper-like, punchy, and pepper-like. Personally, I think they taste and smell faintly like black pepper with a bit of tart sweetness. I can see pink peppercorns' appeal as a colorful garnish, their mild flavor suiting fruits and fish, and their delicate crunch adding some textural interest to a dish. Those pepper medleys and mixes of pink, white, black, and green peppercorns are a bit silly in my opinion. Pink peppercorns' delicate flavor is completely lost when combined with the strong flavors of black, green, and white peppercorns. If you'd like a pepper mix with an exotic and aromatic flavor, you'd be better off replacing the pink peppercorns with allspice. Or use the traditional French spice blend quatre épices which is a varying mixture of black pepper, white pepper, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and or cinnamon. A traditional Indian garam masala would be another good choice of a pepper mix depending on the dish.
Sublime Pink Peppercorns adorning a Mint Stewed Fig nestled in Vegan White Chocolate Mousse atop a Vegan Cookie
Other than a trendy garnish I don't see much use for pink peppercorns. I think they need to go they way of other silly 80's fads like giant shoulder pads, giant hairdos, irrational exuberance, grim optimism, overt materialism, and cosmetic application that looks like warpaint. When I researched this I had no idea that pink peppercorns were related to cashews, mangoes, and pistachios and a possible problem for people suffering nut allergies. That alone would make me hesitant to serve them. If you do find yourself needing to use pink peppercorns do be advised that they break apart easily. They should be crushed with a knife or a mortar and pestle, not a pepper mill. As they are so fragile, they're better purchased in small quantities to ensure top-quality freshness.

Feb 29, 2016

Ingredients: Mustard Oil

Mustard growing wild in the neighbors' winter wheat.

Mustard oil is traditionally used in many of the cuisines of South Asia.  It's distinctive pungent flavor is easily recognizable in the spicy pickles called "achaari" that are popular throughout the Indian subcontinent. Mustard oil is also used for deep frying pakoras and as a general cooking oil in many Desi cuisines. 

Bibi's infrequently used bottle of mustard oil.
Mustard oil is produced by grinding the seeds of the black mustard plant (Brassica nigra), the brown mustard plant (Brassica juncea), or the white mustard plant (Brassica hirta). Mustard oil's pungent flavor is due to the presence of allyl isothiocyanate, all plants in the Brassicaceae family such as horseradish, wasabi, cabbage, and turnips share this potent organosulfur compound's flavor. Along with it's sharp, nutty aspects there's really no way to describe the flavor of raw mustard oil without comparing it to the nose watering and rather caustic notes of wasabi and horseradish.

Brassica hirta or white mustard
The very same mustard that blooms throughout my native California in February  & March
Mustard oil has high levels of alpha-linolenic and erucic acids. While alpha-linoleic acid is one of the two essential fatty acids necessary for health, erucic acid is toxic in high doses. Studies done on rats in the 1970's demonstrated the cardiotoxic effects and perhaps some carcenogenic potential with high erucic acid intake. However, it has since been found that rats digest vegetable oils differently than humans. There have never been any documented reports of harm to humans due to high erucic acid via dietary intake. Mustard oil is not allowed to be imported or sold in the United States for use in cooking due to it's high erucic acid content.

Mustard seeds being ground for oil in India.
In order to reduce mustard oil's pungent flavor many cultures of South Asia heat the oil to smoking point in large quantities to "crack" it. I've seen this done in my Kashmiri relatives' homes. Not only does it terrify me to have a huge pot of smoking oil over a gas flame, the smoke produced is highly irritating to the eyes and airways. When I wish to reduce the pungent flavor of mustard oil I just dilute it with ghee or some other cooking oil. For pickles or achaari the pungent flavor of mustard oil is essential so there's no need to crack it. The use of mustard oil has significantly decreased in South Asia as other vegetable oils have become cheaper and more widely available.

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