Black pepper as a fragrance note (Armani Privé Bois d’Encens, Hermès Poivre Samarcande, Lorenzo Villoresi Piper Nigrum, by way of example) has a vibrant character — citrusy, resinous and ever so slightly smoky. It is not the rasping sensation of pepper powder, but the warm woody dryness of a dark glossy berry. When cooking, I often crush the peppercorns just to inhale their aroma. Needless to say, from steak coated in pepper to ripe strawberries dusted with sugar and freshly ground spice, black pepper finds its way into numerous dishes. A Spanish inspired potato salad is a dish that allows me to enjoy the perfume of pepper to the fullest.
This potato salad is quite simple, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the proportion of potatoes to eggs should be kept more or less equal, but slightly in favor of the potatoes. Second, the quality of vinegar, olive oil and pepper will determine the final outcome. I generally use sherry vinegar with its fall fruit and cedarwood aromas, but red wine vinegar works well too. Black pepper should be freshly ground in order to derive as much as possible from its beautiful flavor and aroma. Tellicherry peppercorns from India are particularly prized for their large berries and rich, complex scent. Vietnamese black pepper lacks the nuances of Tellicherry, but it possesses a wonderful incense and black tea overtone.
While the potatoes are cooling, slice an onion into slivers lengthwise. Mix the onion with enough vinegar to coat the slivers and add salt and a little bit of sugar. Set it aside to marinate. Peel potatoes and cut them in ½ inch cubes. Peel eggs and cut them in similarly sized pieces. Drain the onions and gently mix with parsley, cubed potatoes and eggs. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar and taste. The tartness should be mild, not overly assertive, but you can add more if you prefer more astringency. Since the potatoes have already absorbed some salt from the water, you may not need add much salt. Now, add the olive oil and fresh pepper, tasting to check the balance of flavors. The salad improves upon standing, and I usually make a large amount to eat over the course of a few days. Since cubed tomatoes give off water, I add them only when I am ready to eat, dusting them lightly with pepper before I do so.
Spanish Style Black Pepper and Potato Salad
5 medium unpeeled potatoes, boiled in heavily salted water (2-3 tablespoons of salt per gallon of water)
4 boiled eggs
1 small red onion (marinated in 2 T red or sherry vinegar, a pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon sugar for 10-30 min.)
3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
1 large tomato
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
sherry vinegar (1-2 tablespoons), extra-virgin olive oil (2-3 tablespoons), salt, sugar to taste
Kalustyan’s (123 Lexington Ave, New York) is an Aladdin’s cave for all things fascinating and edible. While I like shopping at the store, ordering online from them has also been great. You can find all kinds of peppers as well as vinegars. World Spice Merchants is another highly reputable site carrying a wide range of spices.
Photo © Bois de Jasmin.