Paradise for $2.99?
No, it's not heaven on the layaway plan from the Rev. BillyJoeBob's Church of the Contemptuous Redemption of the Blessed Holy Scam.
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It's grains of paradise, a tiny peppercorn-like spice that is to your average black peppercorn what the Rev. BillyJoBob is to the Buddha. I heard some guy on the Food Network talking about them a few weeks back, and they sounded like something worth investing a few pennies in (or $2.99 for one ounce from the Spice House).
They look a lot like black peppercorns, which is to say black and round, though about two-thirds the size. Their flavor, however, is extraordinary -- subtle yet intense, with a complexity mere peppercorns can't hope to match. The pepper bite is there but tempered; it builds slowly rather than hitting your taste buds all at once. And as the heat unfolds, you notice the grains' floral, nutty, almost sweet-spicy character. Think the difference between straight white vinegar and a good aged balsamic.
I ground a fair amount on a plain skinless, boneless chicken breast drizzled with olive oil and scattered with sea salt, figuring the bland chicken would be the perfect vehicle to deliver the grains' full flavor profile. The effect was subtle yet noticeable, without the harsh bite an equal amount of pepper would have served up. One reason for that is that grains of paradise -- variously called guinea pepper, alligator pepper, and melegueta pepper -- actually aren't members of the black and white pepper family. They're thought to be more like cardamom, which, given their flavor, makes a lot of sense.
Grains of paradise come from a West African shrub called Aframomum melegueta, where they are typically mixed with other spices and used in soups and stews and for seasoning meats. Believe it or not, they're also used to flavor some Belgian beers, as well as (reportedly) Sam Adams Summer Ale. As a substitute for black pepper, they're terrific and as close to paradise as three lousy dollars will get you.