Having lived as many decades as I have (six and counting), it’s easy to forget how some of the most basic elements of cooking have changed over my lifetime – and you cannot get more basic than salt and pepper.
When I was a child, the salt and pepper I knew then was a far cry from the exotic varieties I’m now able to use. Salt and pepper lived in small pots that sat on the dining room table. One of my jobs was to keep them regularly filled; the salt was Saxa’s iodised salt that came out of a blue drum with two openings, one for sprinkling and one for pouring. If the weather was particularly damp and dismal, my mother would get me to add a few grains of rice to the salt in order to absorb the moisture.
As for the pepper, that was powdered and came in transparent plastic drums. I hated doing the pepper. It always ended up with me sneezing as a cloud of fine pepper would envelope me, despite my attempts to try and get the pepper in as quickly as possible. The stoppers were either cork or rubber on the base of the jar and woe betide me if I didn’t jam them in hard enough. I do remember some disasters when the salt pot was picked up leaving a mound of salt on the table. If I spilt any I was obliged, using my right hand, to throw a small sprinkle over my left shoulder to ward off the evil spirits. Well, that’s what my father told me to do. Old habits die hard, and I still do it!
As far as I knew, pepper came powdered – full stop. My first introduction to pepper grinders and real peppercorns came years later when invited by boyfriends to cheap Italian restaurants with checked tablecloths and Chianti bottle candleholders where the waiters would brandish priapic wooden pepper grinders and offer to sprinkle some on your pasta. I fell in love with the pungent aromatic taste of the freshly ground peppercorns – rather than the boyfriends!
I soon became a confirmed pepper addict, and I was very lucky when living in Albi because the spice lady at the market kept an excellent stock of peppercorns from all over the world – Madagascar, the Cameroons, Szechuan, Cambodia, Vietnam – as well as the basic black peppercorns from Morocco, green peppercorns (both dried and pickled), and the ‘faux’ rose ‘peppercorns’ which come from a mastic tree and are actually dried berries. Wonderfully pungent and fragrant, I like to crush them onto foie gras when I have the opportunity to indulge. The green pickled peppercorns are excellent added to magret of duck and I have a great recipe for cod cooked with green peppercorns – but that’s for another day. As for the black peppercorns – well, I use them every day in one form or another.
It took me slightly longer to discover the delights of sea salt – probably not until the mid-1980s with the revival of interest in British food and the rediscovering of classic British products like Maldon salt, harvested on the salt marshes of Essex since 1882.
Here in France we have two famous salt producing areas – the Guérande on the Atlantic coast and the Camargue on the Mediterranean coast. I keep both varieties in my store cupboard in both formats ie. the ‘fleurs’ or flakes of salt for sprinkling on food, and the cheaper ‘sel fine’ or ground salt for using in cooking.
But with the accumulated decades and the stresses of life and, sadly, death, I have developed high blood pressure and I now cut down on salt for health reasons. I rarely salt when cooking, adding it at the eating stage. Not surprisingly, I often find food in restaurants cooked by professional chefs to be incredibly salty. Thankfully, there is no such taboo when it comes to pepper and I indulge my tastes accordingly.
One of my favourite ways of using black peppercorns is crushing them slightly in a pestle and mortar to end up with cracked peppercorns which I use to create a crust that coats good thick pieces of salmon. It’s one of my favourite ways of eating salmon. Curiously, when my husband was ill with cancer, I discovered that the combination of salmon, broccoli, and brown rice is considered particularly nutritious for cancer patients, so we frequently ate it, even though we both knew his cancer was the incurable kind…
Salmon with a Pepper Crust, served with Brown Rice and Broccoli: Preparation time: 40 minutes, serves two. You will need a small pestle and mortar.
2 thick fillets of salmon
A decent quantity of whole black peppercorns, ordinary peppercorns are fine for this.
25 gm unsalted butter
0.5 litre of organic brown rice (measured in a measuring jug)
1.5 litres water
1 tsp salt – I used sel fine de Guerande
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
Wash the rice in a sieve then leave to soak in a bowl of water for twenty minutes (I find this reduces the cooking time for brown rice). Then take the peppercorns and with patience and some determination, grind them in the pestle and mortar until the majority of them are cracked. If you’re too determined, you end up with ground pepper – which isn’t the aim!
Cover one side of each salmon fillet with a thick coating of the cracked peppercorns and leave until ready to cook.
Rinse the rice again and place in a large saucepan with 1.5 litres of cold water, the teaspoon of salt (one of the few times I use it for cooking), and bring slowly to the boil. Once boiling, reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for 20 minutes. At this point, put the florets of broccoli in a steamer and start cooking.
After an additional 5 minutes, the rice should be cooked (if still slightly nutty). Drain off the water, keep in the pan and place two pieces of kitchen towel over the pan before jamming the lid on tight. This allows the steam from the rice to be absorbed, while the extra time allows the rice to finish gently cooking.
Heat the butter in a large frying pan and place the salmon, un-peppered side down in the pan, and cook on a medium heat for around 3-4 minutes. By which time the broccoli should be ready so remove the water from the steamer and leave in the pan to keep hot.
Now flip the salmon over and cook for 4-5 minutes on the peppered side. The cooking time depends very much on the thickness of the salmon and whether you like your salmon slightly undercooked (which I do). Remove from the heat and it should all be ready!
I love the combination of the slightly crusty pungent peppercorns with the rich tender flesh of the salmon, and the broccoli and rice make the perfect accompaniment – plus you have the benefit of knowing it’s really good for you.