The most pedestrian of spices is salt and pepper. For the most part, salt from a salt shaker does its job. The information age has, of course, made snobs of us all, or at least, the portion of society that seems to care, which I suppose, includes me. Instead of table salt, you can also get kosher salt or sea salt. I haven't bought sea salt personally, but I have bought kosher salt, which you can get in boxes.
To the non-Jew, which includes me, the idea of kosher salt seemed peculiar. To me, kosher meant things like no pork, no shellfish, and animals killed for eating in a particular manner. What did salt have to do with that? I think it has to do with the process of killing requiring the use of salt.
In any case, whatever the reason, kosher salt is a bit flakier than its table salt cousin, and somewhat less salt. By weight, you have to use more kosher salt or less table salt, depending on what you're cooking. But table salt suffices.
Pepper, on the other hand, is almost always pre-ground. This creates a problem because much of pepper's bite comes from oils, which, when exposed to air begins to degrade the flavor, until you have a pale imitation of what used to be pepper. Freshly ground pepper is usually best, but here's the problem: getting a pepper grinder.
You can pick up one almost anywhere, but they are a bit pricey. They cost around twenty dollars or more. How do you find a good pepper mill? I was looking around at some usual locations: Williams and Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and so forth.
Then, I recalled reading an article in Cooks Illustrated, one of my favorite cooking magazines, about a pepper mill they raved about. Problem was, I couldn't remember what the brand was. (Sad thing is I think I bought one a few years ago, but never used it). I did finally find its name: Unicorn Magnum Plus. It's rather pricey at around forty five bucks. I was going to buy one anyway, but once I found shipping and handling where going to add another ten bucks, I hesitated.
I found a place online that seems to be the company that distributes the entire line of Unicorn pepper mills: Pepper Gun and opted for one of their cheaper mills: Keytop. It's smaller than the Magnum Plus, and they're basically closed for business during the holidays, but hopefully in a week or so, I'll have the new pepper mill and talk about it then.
Now, you might wonder what I want with a pepper mill. Recently, I found a recipe for hot and sour soup (two, in fact, one in Cook's Illustrated and one in Saveur). The first recipe uses white pepper to create the heat for the soup.
Ah, white pepper. Ever heard of it? You know about black pepper. There's even red pepper. But white pepper? It's basically black pepper, but it's white. Or somewhat tannish. Unlike black pepper, which shows up as visible flecks in whatever you're cooking, white pepper dissolves and you can't see it.
For some reason, it is a challenge to find white pepper. McCormick's makes it, but all their spices are way overpriced. If you want to get cheap spices, find yourself an Indian grocery store. You can get bags of spices for a the cost of a tiny little bottle by McCormick. And that's if you can even find white pepper.
However, I wanted white peppercorns, so I could grind it fresh, which meant I needed a peppper mill, and now I need peppercorns. I think I'll be able to get the peppercorns from Williams Sonoma, which I visited a few days ago. They had a large jar of it for ten dollars. A little pricey, but it'll do.
Even harder to find are Sichuan peppercorns, which are often used in Sichuan cooking, i.e., spicy Chinese cooking. I suppose a well-stocked Chinese grocer might have it. We'll see.
Oh, the recipe. I've always wanted to make hot and sour soup. It's one of those comfort foods I like, though not all the time. I recall my mother making it once from a can, and it didn't really resemble the stuff I got from restaurants. I thought there was some magic secret to it.
Turns out, it's not all that hard to make, although it is modestly time consuming to cook. Basically, chicken stock, tofu, bamboo shoots, pork, sesame oil, egg, cornstarch, soy, and vinegar (and white pepper! or chili oil). The heat comes from white pepper, so says one recipe. However, the white pepper I had was pretty bland, and I added jalapenos to spice it up. The recipe suggested black vinegar, which I didn't have on hand (we did have something that was black, but it called Chianking vinegar, which did make for a unique tasting hot/sour soup).
OK, so finding good white pepper makes me something of a snob, I admit. Ultimately, being more educated about the world means being more snobbish. Instead of getting any pepper mill (or even knowing I should get a pepper mill), I have to find one that has been judged as good.
Alas, this snobbery means I can tell you that pepper is much like coffee. They say the best coffee comes from grinding the coffee fresh (there's also using good water, and getting a decent brand of beans). If the coffee is ground, then exposure to air starts to degrade its flavor until a year or so later, when it becomes near undrinkable. That's why some companies now vacuum seal their coffee, although some of those vacuum seal an "inferior" make of coffee. It's sort of like getting gourmet Spam. It can only be so good, right?
I know there are a bunch of people that don't care, but funny enough, there are a bunch who do care. Would I care if they didn't? I doubt it. There wouldn't be a market for people who care if there weren't enough people to care. Starbucks made people care about getting coffee of a certain grade, and convinced people it was worth shelling out several bucks.
I used to be one of those folks. I would shell out a few bucks for a latte or a cappuccino. Then, I realized I just wanted good caffeine, and so regular coffee suited me just fine. Thus, when I go to Starbucks, I get their coffee of the day.
Oh, but you know snobbery. Starbucks is the Walmart of coffee houses. But really, as much as they've made life tough for coffee houses, they also gave rise to places that had no coffeehouses. Magic Johnson made an effort to introduce Starbucks to the inner city because he thought even the poor would spend a few bucks on coffee.
In fact, that was the same thing that pushed the ordinary Joe to demand a better cup of Joe. Maybe you can't afford a BMW. Maybe you can't eat caviar, or dine in fine French restaurants, but by golly, you can drink a pricey cup of coffee.
Given my druthers, I'd rather have coffee at a good Seattle coffeehouse like Victrola, but quality coffeehouses aren't all that common. Go to a decent Seattle coffeehouse, and it's worth getting a latte, if for no other reason, than to see the floral pattern they make on the froth in the cup. The locations seem to attract a more bohemian lot than the usual denizens of a Starbucks.
This kind of thinking, I suppose, is endemic of the bobo mentality (bobo=bohemian bourgeois), i.e., folks who have money, but care about the quality of what they buy, and environmental friendliness, etc. This is a merit-based elitism, rather than a wealth-based, blue blood elitism.
All this from wanting better pepper for hot and sour soup.
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