Peppercorns

Black peppercorns are the nearly-ripe berries of Piper nigram. Tellicherry is generally considered to be the best variety of black pepper and comes from the Malabar Coast of India. Lampong and Sarawak are also popular varieties.

Green peppercorns are the same berries picked while completely unripe. They’re best known in green peppercorn sauce, served with steak.

White peppercorns are the seeds of the fully ripe berry. They show up in light-colored sauces, purely for aesthetic reasons, and in Scandinavian cooking.

Pink peppercorns are the dried berries of the Baies rose and technically not pepper at all. They’re less widely used but can be found in vinaigrettes and light sauces for fish.

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Hot peppers, chili powder, and a note on squirrels

Small pointy hot peppers tend to be hotter than large round ones. The little ones are hotter because they have more ribs and seeds, which have more capsaicin.

Chili powder is made of ground mild and hot chiles, oregano, and cumin. Some kinds also contain garlic and salt.

If your chili powder is getting old and needs to be replaced, it doesn’t have to go to waste. Sprinkle it generously over bulbs when you plant them to keep the squirrels out of them, or on top of the soil to protect established bulbs.

By the way, if you like to feed your neighborhood squirrels, you can reduce the amount of digging they do by cracking the nuts you put out for them (and not putting out very many at a time). They bury nuts to soften the shell; if they can get into the nut right away (and aren’t full) they’ll go ahead and eat it.

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Egg trivia

Officially, there is no difference between white and brown eggs, or between organic and conventional ones. However, many people claim to prefer the taste of brown eggs and I know several people who get a stomachache from eating too many conventional ones.

That said, freshness and feed do make significant differences and are difficult to track. These may be the factors that are really in play when people find differences between types of eggs. Free-range and pastured hens definitely have better diets and produce better eggs.

One way to test an egg for freshness by floating it in cold water. Fresh eggs will float on their sides while older eggs will “stand on end” in the water. Even better, crack open the egg and check the white. An old egg, while still safe to eat and legally “fresh,” will have a watery yolk that runs all over the pan; it takes a truly fresh egg to make the classic round, thick-edged fried egg.

To freeze eggs, break them into a container. Pierce the yolks with a fork and gently mix the whites and yolks, creating as little foam as possible — foam will dry out the eggs. Whites frozen by themselves do just fine, but separated yolks will do best if you add a bit of salt to those intended for cooking and a bit of sugar to those that will go into baked goods.

Note: a “no antibiotics” label on a package of chicken meat is of dubious value. Years ago, they experimented with antibiotics as a way to increase the weight of chickens, but found that it was not cost-effective — the drugs cost more than the additional weight could earn. Now, chickens seldom get antibiotics unless they need them.

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Pumpkins

Pumpkins grown for decoration (such as jack o’lanterns) are not suitable for eating; look for “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins” for baking. To save effort on a pumpkin pie without giving up your good home-made flavor, avoid the canned pumpkin pie filling and look for plain canned pumpkin puree (the label may say things like “unsweetened” and “100% pumpkin”), to which you can then add whatever your favorite recipe calls for.

You should also to be aware that squash of all kinds cross readily with any gourds growing in the area. Avoid squash with “warts” on the skin (compare a normal pumpkin with one of the “knucklehead” ones to see what I’m talking about). Warty squash are likely to have taste and/or texture issues.

Dry milk

If you only use small amounts of milk, dry milk can be the way to go. Most milk powders mix in the same ratio, one part powder to four parts water. That means you can mix up a cup of milk using 1/4 cup of dry milk, or my favorite amount, a tablespoon of powder to 1/4 cup of water. Mix that up first, drop in three eggs and cinnamon to taste, and make about 6 slices of French toast (or, as it was called in medieval England, pan purdy).

As a side note, if you do have to drink the stuff, mix it up the day before and let it sit in the fridge overnight to dissolve more thoroughly.

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“Tired” greens

You can rehydrate droopy greens by letting them sit in cold water for an hour or three. Be sure to drain them well before putting them away, though. This can work for certain other vegetables as well.

Many leaf vegetables such as lettuce store longer if there’s a little bit of water at the bottom of the bag so the stem(s) can “drink,” but the leaves must be kept clear of it or they’ll rot. In some cases, like with asparagus, this is best achieved by putting them in a rigid container with a little water in the bottom, vase-style. Unless you’re going to use it right away, though, drop a plastic bag over the whole thing to keep the moisture in.

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