If cheese is “milk’s leap toward immortality,” as writer Clifford Fadiman once said, then cheese laced with crushed black and green peppercorns is at heaven’s gate.
We sometimes tend to take that grinder full of black peppercorns for granted. But long ago, explorers, such as Marco Polo in the 13th century, went to far-off lands and sailed into uncharted seas to find pepper, then a highly valuable commodity. Now, ground black pepper is so commonplace we pick it up in throwaway packets at fast food joints and find it on every restaurant table.
But black pepper still reigns as one of the cook’s best friends. The term “freshly ground black pepper” has become standard on recipe ingredient lists. Pepper is used to season food that is savory as well as sweet (try freshly sliced strawberries with a grinding of black pepper sometime).
If you chew up a fresh, good-quality peppercorn and focus on the flavor, you might notice a slight sweetness, as well as hints of other spices, such as nutmeg or allspice, along with that dark, spicy burn pepper gives on the tongue.
I recently discovered Marco Polo cheese from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, an artisan cheese producer from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. I picked it up at Central Market last week, intrigued by not only the black pepper but the roughly cracked green peppercorns that promised additional great flavor.
I wasn’t disappointed. The cheese is creamy, with a firm, cheddar texture. The crushed black and green peppercorns made the cheese warm but not hot, as is a chile-laced Pepper Jack. It’s the kind of cheese to sit and savor with some good crackers and a handful of olives.
The cheese is an award-winner for Beecher’s, founded and owned by Kurt Beecher Dammeier. The cheesemaker is Brad Sinko. Marco Polo has taken gold and silver medals at the World Cheese Awards, and there is a reserve version of the cheese, too.
I decided to use the Marco Polo to top grilled, pepper-coated burgers. Served on ciabatta rolls toasted with garlic butter, the usual trimmings and a dab of chipotle mayo, this was a happy meal indeed. A glass of Merlot topped it off.
A final word on peppercorns: the berry, from the pepper plant produces three kinds of seeds — black, white and green. The green peppercorns are unripe berries. They come in dried form as well as packed in brine. Black peppercorns are berries picked when not quite ripe, and white peppercorns are allowed to ripen longer. While white pepper is often used in white sauces and other dishes where you don’t want the black specks of pepper to appear, it has a characteristic flavor, slightly different from black or green peppercorns.
Marco Polo Burgers
3/4-1 pound ground sirloin
3-4 tablespoons course-ground black pepper
Kosher salt, to taste
Six slices Beecher’s Marco Polo cheese
2 ciabatta rolls or your favorite hamburger bun
Burger trimmings, your choice
Prepare a grill, pan or oven broiler to make burgers.
Pat out two burgers, making the sides thick rather than thin. Put the pepper on a plate and spread it out. Roll each burger on end, like a wheel, through the pepper so that the perimiters are coated with black pepper. Season the top and bottom of the burger with more pepper as well as the kosher salt.
For burger rolls, split the ciabatta and butter the insides with garlic butter.
Put burgers on to cook. When you flip them, put the cheese on top to melt. In the meantime, broil or grill the ciabatta so that it is hot and toasty around the edges. Top with the finished burgers and serve with condiments and trimmings.
Makes 2 burgers.
From Bonnie Walker