Peppery Pilau: A royally roasted dish and a soothing sip to go with it!
I’m going to India in February, and I’m just a little excited. I can often be spotted carrying my Love Travel guide ( see above) or pouring over any India documentary I can get my hands on. The Indian family I work for even has my husband and I on a spice training regimen ( true story!) to prep our Midwestern palates for the glory of spice and heat that awaits us in the streets of Delhi!
I often eat at a small pop up restaurant run by a local woman ( originally from Sri Lanka) called “The Curry Diva”. She is everything that name might suggest, in only the best ways. She serves truly amazing and unique meals, and each week my spicy coconut sambol spoonfull grows just a tad bigger! She knows how much I love to learn about spices and she indulges my curiosity and palate each time I see her; handing me branches of fresh curry leaves over the counter, slipping vials of saffron into my palm over the roti plate, and don’t get me started on the pound of Sri Lankan cinnamon she gifted me, fresh from her trip!
I was overwhelmed by her generosity and couldn’t think of a token to offer her, until one day she unscrewed the top of a mystery jar and challenged me to identify it. It was aromatic and familiar, but with distinct notes I couldn’t quite put my finger, er… nose on. I finally guessed some varietal of black pepper and she confirmed that it was, with a twist, it was roasted. Roasted black peppercorns? I’d been blogging about spices for almost a year and the idea of roasting pepper had somehow escaped me. I knew immediately what my offering to her would be, as well as my next recipe challenge. I gifted her with the very best pepper I could find, Reluctant Trading Experiment Divakar’s No. 4, and set off to roast some for myself.
Surprisingly, for as long as black pepper (often called the “King of Spice”) has been around, I found relatively little on the benefits or uses for roasting. In a stroke of luck the Kataria’s ( my favorite Indian family) had relatives visiting from Mumbai who agreed to spend a day cooking with me. They suggested Pilau, the one recipe they immediately thought of when I inquired about roasting black pepper.
We had a wonderful day and made a beautiful North Indian Pilau, which featured a variety of fragrant whole spices including bay leaves, black cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon bark, and of course black pepper. This roasting was done in oil, and integrated into the dish. The peppercorns swelled to plump little nibbles whose bite was diluted during the cooking process, so they were able to be enjoyed whole. We also added green “chana” ( delicious green chickpeas that tasted fresh and faintly of jasmine to me). While it turned out fantastic I wanted to try something which highlighted the complex and rich taste of the roasted peppercorns. I chose a simple cumin and black peppercorn pilau, and will share the recipe with you below.
Cooking oil ( I used olive, ghee is often used in India and Ayurvedic cooking)
About 1/2 Tbsp of whole cumin seeds ( more or less to taste)
1 red onion, roughly chopped to bite size pieces
2 cups of Basmati Rice
Salt and of course, pepper. ( Now that I have discovered The Reluctant Trading Experiment I’ll never go back!)
First step, time to toast!
I threw a couple tablespoons of dry peppercorns into a dry enameled cast iron pot. Mine is an old one called a Dru, made in Holland but i have also used a Le Creuset. I think any dry pot will do. I turned the heat to medium and used a wooden knife to stir the pepperoni, in an effort to fast evenly. After a few minutes the warm scent of pepper drifted up from the pan. It’s relatively subtle, but the process alone is a mediation. When toasting spices, their oils and burn rather quickly and they become bitter, so an attentive cook is required. Personally I enjoy the little ritual, and find it a chance to close my eyes and be grateful for the effort that has gone into harvest these tiny wonders spices! I may have left mine on the burner just a little too long because several jumped ship and begin popping right out of their pot like tiny poppercorns! ( Sorry couldn’t resist).
When they do this, they are done and ready to be taken from heat. Pop a few in your mouth when they are still warm and notice the malty, nutty quality. I let mine cool in a small bowl before transferring them to my ceramic mortar and pestle. You will notice they have swollen and darkened.
While watching your spices roast and crackle, heat your oil into a large heavy cooking pot.
When oil shimmers, throw in the cumin.
Cook for just about a minute, until the sunny, nutty flavors are released. If the seeds begin to smoke you have cooked them too long.
Now, throw in your onions until just browned, Doing this caramelizes them and will add a richness to your dish, which will be balanced by our fiery peppercorns.
Toss the rice in the cooking oil for about a minute, without water. This gives it nice firmness and makes for a beautiful pot of clump-less grains.
Finally, add twice as much water as rice, in this case 4 cups. Bring to boil again and then turn down to simmer, cover.
Let cook about 20 minutes or until rice has doubled in size.
Add your freshly roasted and crushed pepper to taste, don’t be afraid to sprinkle liberally! The delicious pepper flavor is the star of the show in this dish.
I toasted my spices as my pilau rice was cooking and ground them just before I sprinkled a healthy spoonful over the top. I ended up wishing I would have added more. I won’t be s shy with my spicing next time!
Along with the changes in flavor, I wanted to understand the benefits to roasting. When I searched I found that the health benefits are largely the same as when not roasted. Black pepper is beneficial for a wide variety of things including digestion, respiratory health and circulation. It is also used as a preservative and has anti-inflammatory properties.
What does change when you roast it is the flavor. The peppercorns I roasted were very high quality, and had a strong, floral taste with a considerable amount of heat. I consider them to be very aromatic and well balanced but they do have a slightly sharp taste, as most un-toasted or “raw” black pepper will. The toasted pepper had a nutty, chocolate flavor and could be used on it’s own, or mixed with several other spices, such as garam masala.
I found the toasted pepper to lend itself to sweet treats. I added a healthy dab of strawberry jam, to a bit of vanilla ice cream and sprinkled some roasted and crushed pepper over the top! It was a slightly exotic twist, and the black pepper actually helps you digest the dairy.
Finally, after all my hard work I mad myself a cup of black pepper honey tea. A little pinch of these fragrant berries goes a long way!
How do you buy your black pepper and what do you use it for? Have you ever roasted it?
One final note, storing spices once they are roasted in an airtight container will help keep the flavor, some of the oils will have been cooked or released while roasting and it is usually by crushing them that we open them up. If you do choose to roast them whole, I think it works best to store them that way until ready to use them and crush them. Personally , I think they are most pungent when just roasted, and suggest only doing about as much as you’ll for the meal you are planning. Many cookbooks and blogs tout quick recipes and how to have dinner on the table in ten minutes or less. That is important sometimes, but so are these little rituals. The five to ten minutes it takes to toast and crush the beautiful whole spices you’ve taken care to purchase can be seen as a small offering to your your meal and to those that are about to enjoy it with you, even ( or perhaps especially) when it’s a simple meal for yourself.