Every Monday night, Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya has one job: to whip up a quick, bright salad that will offset the richness of his wife’s red beans and rice, a weekly tradition in their New Orleans home.
In winter, that often means a jumble of sliced apple, fresh fennel and toasted pecans. But Shaya relies on two spices to elevate the simple salad to one with complex texture and flavor: fruity Aleppo pepper and aromatic pink peppercorns.
To maximize the pecans’ natural sweetness and crunch, Shaya coats them in stiffly whipped egg white, then seasons them with Aleppo pepper, sugar and salt. They’re toasted in the oven until crisp—baking up into an addictive snack in their own right. And while they sound fancy, Shaya says, they’re actually easy to make.
For dressing the apples and fennel slices, he makes an emulsion of orange juice, honey, cider vinegar and olive oil. A garnish of lightly crushed pink peppercorns—which are not true peppercorns at all (see sidebar below)—adds a delicate textural contrast and mild bite. Fennel fronds and scallions provide herbal, oniony accents that balance the salad’s fruity flavor.
We loved the refreshing flavors, crisp-crunchy textures and interesting use of spice in Shaya’s salad, but we tinkered with it to pare back the sweetness and play up the peppercorns. We omitted the orange juice and increased the cider vinegar—using an almost equal amount of vinegar and olive oil. Rather than treating the peppercorns as a garnish, we whisked them into the vinaigrette to disperse their flavor.
We also streamlined the candying process. We whisked an egg white just until frothy, then folded the pecans into it. In order to minimize clumping, we spooned them into another bowl before tossing them with the salt, sugar and Aleppo and spreading them on a prepared pan.
While the nuts toasted in a 325°F oven, we made the dressing and prepped a fennel bulb. We trimmed off the stalks, reserving the fronds for garnish, and sliced off the fibrous base. Then we halved the bulb lengthwise and thinly sliced each half crosswise against the grain, leaving the vegetable’s core intact.
To soften fennel’s strong flavor, we tossed it with the vinegary dressing and let it stand while the pecans toasted and cooled (they firm up as they come to room temperature). We waited until just before serving to core, halve and slice two apples, to avoid any browning.
The resulting salad was simple to make yet complex-tasting, with a variety of contrasts: tart and sweet, oniony and floral, juicy and crunchy.
Pink peppercorns provide pops of color and fruity spice in our apple-fennel salad. But despite their physical similarity to black pepper, they’re not actually peppercorns at all.
Instead of the Piper nigrum that’s dried to make black and white pepper, pink peppercorns are the dried berry of a South American tree, Schinus terebinthifolius, in the same family as cashew and mango trees.
Originally from Peru—where they were once fermented by Amazonian tribes into a beer called chiche—the berries are now mostly cultivated in Brazil. They turn red when they ripen and are dried after they’re harvested.
Pink peppercorns are floral, a little spicy and not as strong as black pepper, with a delicate, fruity flavor. Slightly crushing them releases their aromas.
We love pink peppercorns in uses sweet and savory. Mix them with black peppercorns for an all-purpose seasoning. Stir them into coarse sea salt or melted butter to make a garnish for fish and sautéed vegetables. Grind them and fold into shortbread cookie dough, or sprinkle them over sliced strawberries and honey.