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Spicing Up the Holidays

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On a recent trip to Malaysia, in search of small but important ingredients to many a holiday tradition, my guide was Lucia Cleveland, who in 1980 started a company called The Spice Hunter. The purpose of our trip: to seek the best spices and herbs in the world for the home cook.

First, we went to the state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, to visit small plantations known for producing the world’s finest quality pepper. Both white and black pepper come from a berry, called a peppercorn, that grows on a woody, climbing vine. Several vines are planted around 12-foot supports, and the large, egg-shaped leaves grow into what look like tall, thick bushes. The pepper berries resemble small grapes as they grow in spiky clusters about 4 to 6 inches long. As they ripen, they turn from green to yellow to red.

If the end product is to be black pepper, the berries are picked while they’re still immature and then dried until the skin wrinkles and turns deep black or brown. This gets ground into the black and white bits seen on most tables.

White pepper is produced by removing the outer skin and grinding only the white inner core. The berries are picked when fully mature, which makes it easier to remove the skins by soaking then rubbing.

Sarawak white pepper is sun-dried in single layers, which keeps it from developing the mustiness often associated with this spice. The creamy pepper has a uniform ivory color and in the United States is used primarily in dishes where dark particles just wouldn’t look right. In Europe, white pepper is generally preferred because it lacks the intense flavor of black pepper.

Our search for great cloves led us to the Malaysian island of Penang. Its location in the northern end of the Strait of Malacca is ideal for growing this spice that comes from the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree. Growing to 40 feet, the trees produce 7 to 40 pounds of buds each harvest, for as long as 100 years. The organically grown Penang cloves are less astringent and prized because they have a sweetness not found in other cloves.

Timing is everything with cloves. The buds have to be picked before they flower or they’re useless as a spice. And getting to them is tough. All of them are picked by hand, so you can see why it’s said a life is risked for every clove. After they’re harvested, buds are sun-dried for several days and shrink quite a bit. Their sweet, pungent menthol aroma and minty, warm spicy taste is central to a lot of holiday memories from the kitchen.

Helping me to spice up holiday dishes with creamy white peppercorns from Sarawak and organic cloves from Penang are three of San Diego’s fine chefs: Daryl Jacobson, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at the Aventine; Michael Stebner, executive chef of Nine-Ten at La Jolla’s Grand Colonial; and Christophe Vessaire, chef du cuisine at Le Fontainebleau Room in the Westgate Hotel. Here are five recipes that will add a touch of the essence of Malaysia to your own holiday fare.

Jeanne Jones’ Lemon-Pepper Ice Cream

1 quart (4 cups) low-fat vanilla ice cream

1 large lemon

1-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper

Place the ice cream in a large bowl and allow to soften for about 20 minutes.

Removing only the yellow part of the rind, carefully peel the lemon. Coarsely chop the rind to produce approximately 3 tablespoons. Squeeze the juice from the peeled lemon until you have about 3 tablespoons.

Combine 1 cup of the softened ice cream, the chopped lemon rind, the juice and pepper in a blender and blend for about 1 minute, or until the rind is completely pulverized. Add the mixture to the remaining ice cream and mix thoroughly. Spoon into a container with a tight-fitting lid and place in the freezer until firm. This refreezing of the ice cream reduces its volume by half and produces a denser consistency. Remove 15 minutes before serving to allow it to soften a bit.

Makes four servings. Each 1/2-cup serving contains approximately 204 calories, 8 grams of fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 90 milligrams sodium, 32 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein and negligible fiber.

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