Nigel Slater: Ground force

I am not at all sure you can judge a cook by their kitchen. Some of the worst meals I have ever eaten have come out of flash bells-and-whistles kitchens. But most people leave enough clues lying around to give you an inkling of what sort of supper you might be in for. Like their pestle and mortar: is it fresh with the dust of newly crushed cardamoms, or is it home to the dog's lead, the key to the back door and some pre-decimal loose change? More tellingly, have they actually got one, or do their spices come ready ground from a jar? Or do they use their coffee grinder instead, the curry-maker's equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a hazelnut?

Being a self-confessed anti-clutter-nutter means I probably have less equipment in my kitchen than most, but I will admit to being the proud owner of two pestles and mortars. Look, some families have two cars. This is partly because I find their simple, organic shapes deeply satisfying - I cannot help running my fingers over their worn stone bowls as I pass - and partly for practical reasons. I keep one purely for crushing whole, dry spices, and a second, deeper one for wet, garlicky pastes such as pesto and aioli. Like Tupperware, unglazed stone tends to hang on to the essential oils in garlic, which will do your hand-ground vanilla sugar no favours at all. You would think, wouldn't you, that the finer you crush a spice the more flavour you would get out of it. Yet do this simple test. Crush a palmful of your plumpest black peppercorns in a pepper mill, then crack another little batch lightly but firmly with a pestle, or other heavy object. Now inhale. No contest, is there? The roughly crushed spice is more heady and has much deeper, more interesting things going on than the fine powder. And while the finely ground stuff is invaluable for balancing the seasoning of your supper - fine tuning, if you like - the roughly cracked pepper seems to have more depth to it and will add a textural contrast, too.

Much will depend on your pepper. I tend to make a bit of a fuss about such basic matters as salt and pepper, because I think of them as the backbone of the kitchen. The best I have come across are the fat, heavily fragrant Wynard peppercorns. The fruits are left on the vine a little longer than usual, so they ripen thoroughly before they are picked and dried. The result seems to be a superior product. The smell, as I prise the lid off the Kilner jar, is heavenly. Even before you crack them open, their fresh, warm and slightly citrus notes waft up from the jar. It is a smell that instantly makes you hungry. (The piperine in them is a stimulant and gets the saliva glands flowing.) Smart grocers have them (or you can pick them up at

The classic recipe for coarsely cracked peppercorns is steak au poivre, which uses lightly bashed black and white as a crust in a butter-fried steak. The white is hotter and, to my nose anyway, flatter and less aromatic than the black. It is the vindaloo of the pepper family. The black are all about aroma and warmth. Good though this dish is, I find the crunch of the virtually whole spices a bit too much and often throw in some unorthodox soft green peppercorns, too. An act that would be sacrilege, if it wasn't so darned good. These mellow the whole dish and avoid the gravel effect of a mouthful of dried spices.

In search of a simple store-cupboard recipe for some chicken wings, I seasoned them with nothing but lemon (lots of it) and industrial quantities of the black stuff, lightly crushed using a pestle and mortar. The effect, if you let them roast for long enough, is not just the obligatory crisp skin but a deep stick-to-the-pan gooeyness as well. Crisp, sticky, crunchy, salty, slightly hot and deeply aromatic. Here's the recipe.

Roast chicken wings with lemon and black pepper
This is finger food at its very best. So simple you could do them with a blindfold on, these roast chicken wings are probably my all-time favourite thing to eat while watching the match, or reruns of Sex and the City. You can double the recipe easily enough for larger numbers. The trick is to roast them till they are almost stuck to the roasting tin. Don't even think of using a knife and fork here. Serves 2.

12 large free-range chicken wings
a large juicy lemon
5 bay leaves
1 heaped tbsp black peppercorns
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp sea salt flakes

Check the chicken wings for stray feathers. Put the wings into a roasting dish, halve the lemon and squeeze it over them, then cut up the lemon shells and tuck them, with the bay leaves, between the chicken pieces. Put the peppercorns in a mortar and bash them so they crack into small pieces. They should still be nubbly, rather than finely ground. Mix the peppercorns with the olive oil then toss with the chicken and lemon. Scatter the salt flakes, without crushing them, over the chicken. Roast for 40-45 minutes, turning once. The chicken should be golden and sticky, the edges blackened here and there.

Spring cabbage with black pepper and cream
Part of the point of eating spring cabbage is not just its loud flavour, but the fact that you get to feel good about having eaten your greens. This recipe manages to temper both the stridency of flavour and one's inevitable smugness at being so good. This is the perfect accompaniment for grilled or roast pork, though I have been known to eat it with brown rice as a main dish in itself. Serves 4 as a side dish.

400g spring cabbage
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp juniper berries
25g butter
150ml (a small pot will do) double cream

Separate the leaves of the spring greens and shred them into finger-thick strips. I find the easiest way to do this is to pile the leaves on top of one another, then roll them up and shred them with a large knife.

Bring a pan of water to the boil, salt it lightly and add the cabbage. Let it boil for barely a couple of minutes. You want the leaves to be tender but still bright green and perky. Meanwhile, crush the peppercorns and juniper berries lightly with a pestle and mortar, or with a heavy object on a chopping board. Drain the cabbage, return the empty pan to the heat and melt the butter in it. Toast the crushed spices in the butter for a minute or two until fragrant, then pour in the cream. Leave to bubble for a minute or two, until it starts to thicken slightly, then season with a very little salt and tip in the drained greens. Toss the cabbage leaves in the spiced cream till they are lightly coated. Serve straightaway, while the sauce is still piping hot and creamy.

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