How can I get Sichuan peppercorn flavor in my home cooking?
After being introduced to Sichuan cuisine in New York, I've become obsessed with the "ma la" flavor that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns, and have tried a number of strategies to get it in my home cooking, none with any success. I first tried buying some Sichuan peppercorns at a local spice market and grinding them in a Krups grinder, but the resulting powder was unpleasantly sandy and gritty, and it seemed to require a great deal powder to create only a bit of flavor.
I then tried creating a chile-and-peppercorn infused oil using this recipe: http://redcook.net/2011/03/28/sichuan... -- and had some success, but the sichuan peppercorn flavor is still very mild and disappears entirely when I add it to a dish like a stir fry or a home made Mapo Tofu.
What am I doing wrong? Do I, perhaps, just have a bad batch of peppercorns? Is there a good place to buy them online? Or, alternatively, if there's a prepared product (such as an oil or powder) that would give me satisfactory results, I'd happily use it. I'm not a fancy cook, I just want to get that "ma la" flavor in my simple home stir fries!
First, the peppercorns must be fresh enough to be aromatic, and should be stored sealed to preserve freshness. Then you can make Roasted Szechwan Pepper Salt (from The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp). Without giving all the details here, it is basically whole Sz pepper mixed with kosher salt and dry-roasted in a heavy skillet for a few minutes. Then reduce to a fine consistency with food processor or mortar and pestle. Strain to remove husks. Store sealed.
Definitely use them whole/ground, right in the dish! But have a look at your peppercorns. Before grinding, you want to remove all of the shiny black seeds, which are likely to be responsible for the grittiness you encountered. Keep only the reddish-brown "peel" that covers the seed. (While you're at it, you can also remove the stems, but I have never bothered.)