Grüner Veltliner, Szechuan cooking, and the spice that binds them.

Szechuan style green beans with smashed white peppercorns and Grüner Veltliner.

From my earliest jobs busing tables until working at the northern Italian inspired Frasca Food and Wine, I worked almost exclusively with French, or at least French trained, chefs. While I learned to appreciate new foodstuffs like foie gras and black truffles, I never understood their fascination with the pungent white peppercorn that I thought ruined mashed potatoes and béchamel sauce.

Peppercorns are the berries of the pepper plant (Piper nigrum) which is native to southern Asia. Unlike black peppercorns which are underripe, white peppercorns are fully ripened and have their outer hulls removed. I’ve now come to appreciate the floral fragrance of freshly cracked white pepper, though my revelation came via Chinese cuisine rather than Julia Child. In China, white pepper is known as “baihu jiaofen” (foreign powder) and is far more common than black pepper. A few years ago over dim sum at Shui Wah in Chicago’s Chinatown, it was suggested to me that I garnish congee, the rice porridge that is a dim sum staple, with the white pepper offered on the table. I’m now so addicted to this combination that I can’t enjoy congee without it and I find myself smashing white peppercorns with my mortar and pestle whenever I’m cooking with Asian flavors. I recently brought home green beans from the farmers market and I immediately thought of cooking them Szechuan style with garlic, chili flakes (true Szechuan peppers are difficult to find), and of course, white pepper. All I needed was the wine.

We always suggest German Riesling with Chinese cuisine, especially when it’s the fiery-hot cooking of Szechuan, a landlocked, mountain-ringed region in western China. German Riesling is always a safe bet because its sweetness and low alcohol tames and handles the heat, and it’s also recommended because many Chinese-American dishes contain a good amount of sugar. But what if we omitted the sugar in our recipe, and instead played up the white pepper angle? Why not Grüner Veltliner, the dry white wine of lower Austria, with its flavors of white peach, citrus, and . . . white pepper, of course! Grüner’s alcohol level will vary widely depending on where it is grown, and for this type of fare, we suggest finding one from Kremstal or Kamptal rather than the more powerful wines of the Wachau region. The Weingut Stadt Krems Grüner Veltliner 2007 from Kremstal with 12.5% alcohol proved to be just the thing, and our addition of freshly smashed white pepper actually drew out the pretty floral high notes of this wine.

posted on June 29 2009 by jesse

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