One Sunday, many many weeks, possibly months ago, we were going to a market north of the city – it was lovely and full of the most varied assortment of pumpkins one could imagine. Upon reflection, it must have been pre-Halloween since there were so many pumpkins and plenty of chestnuts and the California pepper tree was fruiting its splendid clusters of pink peppercorns, which, if you didn’t know, is slightly poisonous. I may have borrowed a few clusters and took them home to photograph the few well-lit photos you are now viewing.
Slightly poisonous may sound a bit dangerous, but so is drinking too much water.
I first encountered the pepper tree a few years ago on one of many tree walks through East Bay – it reminded me of those weeping willows with heavy drooping, much too weighty for gravity branches, but until then I’ve never see one with peppers. They were practically diving towards the ground and was more impressive in color than their actual environment, which was a sandy slope on the side of an unimpressive road that one must drive on to find parking. The biologist in me was curious, so I did something possibly illegal and cut off a few samples to do some research, which led me to discover a bit of information on these seemingly gorgeous clusters.
The Schinus molle, or the California pepper tree as it is called, is not a native tree to the area or to the state. It’s from Peru and is actually not a pepper in that it is not related to traditional peppercorns, Piper nigrum. The molle are often sold as peppers in the colorful variety packs or small individuals, and as I’ve mentioned, it is slightly poisonous. Which, is a great way to say Merry Christmas not at all.
If you’ve seen my fig pizza recipe, you’ll know that I’m particularly fond of pink peppercorns and their floral taste. According to wikipedia, they can be poisonous to young children and calves, but personally, I’ve never had any adverse reactions to them since I can’t possibly eat too many in one sitting. Like other poisons, it also has hidden medicinal benefits – antidepressant, antibacterial, antiseptic, and menstrual cramps relief. I’m no doctor, but that all sounds a bit highly skeptical, yet delicious.
In the 80’s, pink peppercorns were banned in the states, but now, you can find them in Whole Foods and many other grocers, and obviously sidewalks in California where, if you are brave enough to ingest pollutants, you can also have a fruity pink peppercorn harvest salad like this one. These Peruvian fruits are best smashed with a rolling pin rather than a pepper grinder and is more complex than black peppers, but if you are afraid of their poisonous intrigue, they can be left out of this salad entirely, for a less celebratory flair.
Personally, I find their lore and confetti-like colors perfectly suited for the holidays. They match up to my other poisons – caffeine, alcohol, and sugar while holding their own kick.
Another important thing of note, the first photo contains a California buckeye, which, if you haven’t already tasted, is terrible and also poisonous. We were out driving back from a day in Tomales Bay and thought we saw a pear tree so we made a quick stop and picked a few to taste. Unfortunately, they turned out to be buckeyes, and and at the time, we did not know that it was poisonous, but soon found out that it was pretty much disgusting. So, if you ever see one, don’t eat it.
Celebration Slaw Recipe
Notes: I like this dish as a brunch salad of sorts which is why I made it last year for Christmas Brunch, and now this year as well. The colors are absolutely exciting and like I said the peppers can be omitted. However, I think they are very aromatic and adds a bit of complexity with their bits of pinkish flair. Cut your apple last to prevent coloring.
4 c. thinly shaved Brussels (I used 15)
2 c. packed baby arugula
arils from 2 large pomegranates
1/2 c. chopped aged feta
1/2 c. slivered almonds
4 radishes, julienned
1 apple, julienned
2 TB pink peppercorns, crushed with a rolling pin
1 Meyer lemon, juiced (this tends to be sweet/fruity, so use less if you only have regular lemons)
3 tb hazelnut oil, walnut oil, or olive oil (we prefer hazelnut)
1 ts salt
1 ts sugar
+ Make the dressing first and set aside.
+ Toss all of the ingredients together, saving a bit of poms to place on top.
I hope you are having a great time prepping for Christmas… we are still shopping and I am going a bit crazy. I have not figured out what to cook for Christmas brunch yet, aside from this recipe.