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Shaking flavour with Szechuan pepper

Petit poussin with szechuan pepper

I recently rediscovered my flavour shaker. It had been given to me for Christmas several years ago, and then we moved house, and you know how it is – a box gets unpacked, you think ‘where shall I put this?’, you shove it in a cupboard, and after three years of complaining that somebody stole the Jamie Oliver flavour shaker you lift up a forgotten implement and there it is.

This is a devilishly clever device. It’s essentially a mortar and pestle without the mortar or the pestle. It looks like a Russian doll except that it doesn’t have a face, there is only one of them, no dress or face is painted on it, and when you open it up, there are no progressively smaller Russian dolls to take out and then put back in again. (Altogether a peculiar invention, a Russian doll is at once a doll, a game and an ornament.)

Jamie Oliver’s invention could also double as a game, if you think about it. You could fill it with whole, hard spices and then go out into the yard with your mates and throw it to one another. Five minutes of that and you’ve had as good a workout as most chefs ever get, and your spices will be crushed and ready to go into the pot.

Inside the flavour shaker is a very hard, surprisingly heavy little white ball resembling a stone golf ball. It’s actually ceramic but you’d never think so, it’s that heavy. You shove stuff inside the shaker, close it, shake it in a way that will have your mates chuckling and pointing, and whatever’s inside it will have been gloriously bashed about. As with a mortar and pestle, you can put anything in it from whole seeds to herbs, nuts, garlic and ginger. The magic of the shaking will release flavours for you to put into your food.

Finding it brought to mind the host of whole spices I had bought recently at a spice shop in Gatesville. Central Cape Town is pathetically free of spice shops worth spending time and money in, so if you want lots of choice and plenty of stock, head out to the Cape Flats and discover a whole new way of food shopping. The range is enormous, and I found myself wandering around wide-eyed, basket in hand and shoving stuff in with abandon. Among the many acquisitions were black teal seeds – which I have yet to use but I’ll give them a whirl soon and report back – and whole Szechaun peppercorns. These resemble black peppercorns except for their reddish-brown colour, and unlike other peppercorns their flavour is mild, sweetly spicy and vaguely citrusy.

I crushed these with whole coriander seeds in the flavour shaker, then added olive oil, crushed garlic and crushed ginger to make a coating for chicken. You could add any number of other spices, but I wanted the szechaun (also known as sichaun) peppercorns to be the dominant flavour.

For roasted petit poussin, you need one whole bird per person. This does come out much pricier than using a whole fully-grown chicken, but for a dinner party it is a good, imposing thing to present on an individual plate, and there isn’t really all that much meat on a petit poussin, considering that the poor blighter is barely out of nappies.

Roasted petit pousin with szechuan pepper and gooseberries

2 T (heaped) szechuan peppercorns

1T heaped whole coriander seeds

3T olive oil

3 obese garlic cloves (or four mildly overweight ones), flattened and chopped

2 inches fresh ginger, finely chopped (yes, inches – ginger is traditionally measured in inches, not centimetres)

Salt and pepper to taste

100ml verjuice

20 gooseberries

Shake the szechuan peppercorns and coriander seeds violently in a flavour shaker, or bash them about with a mortar and pestle. Pour them into a bowl. Peel the ginger and slice it finely in one direction, then turn and slice into slim matchsticks. Now cut across to make tiny rectangles and pop into the bowl with the spices. Place the whole garlic cloves side-on on a board and place a large kitchen knife on it. Slam it down with your fist to make the skin pop off. Plop out the cloves and chop finely, adding to the bowl. Pour in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and stir.

Petit poussin need less cooking time than a larger chicken, obviously, but you do want them nicely browned, so start with a nice hot oven preheated to 200°. Pack the spice mix all over the chicken, rubbing it in with your hands, and sprinkle more dry flavour-shaken herbs on top if you like (I did). Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for 20 minutes at 200° then turn it down to 180º for another 30 to 40 minutes, basting halfway. Turn off the oven and remove the birds, wrapping them snugly in foil. Put in a bowl and back in the oven, leaving the door ajar while the meat tenderises.

Put the oven pan on a hot plate and turn the heat on high. Pour in the verjuice and deglaze the pan. Strain into a small saucepan and reduce to a good pouring sauce. Add the gooseberries and simmer for two minutes. Serve with the petit poussin, with sauteed mushrooms (I used enokii and small brown mushrooms, sliced and cooked quickly, tossing in olive oil and then adding verjuice and seasoning).

If you’re looking at the picture, you’ll be wondering where the gooseberries are. I forgot to put them on, but the husk did make a pretty garnish. One day I’ll find them in a cupboard somewhere after years of wondering what the hell happened to those gooseberries.

First published in Weekend Argus October 2011

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. [...] Shaking flavour with Szechuan pepper | SLIVER [...]

  2. Leilani van der Walt says:

    I live in South Africa and would like to know where I can get hold of Szehuan peppercorns

  3. tonyjackman says:

    Hi, I find mine at small local spice shops on the Cape Flats. try Gatesville if this is your area…

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