"Are you cooking with that thing again?" my husband asks whenever he smells star anise in the kitchen.
Anise has the strong aroma and sweet taste of licorice, but they're not related. Those who enjoy spirits may be familiar with the taste: Star anise is a key ingredient in sambuca, pastis and Pernod.
It's a pretty spice: dark brown and star-shaped, hence the name.
It is most closely associated with Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisines; in fact, it is a key ingredient of Chinese five-spice powder. While it also is associated with Indian food, I never tasted it growing up and only encountered it a few years ago while trying to learn Malaysian cooking.
"Star anise is a spice that I first remember smelling in my mother's hand before she would add it to her braised beef," recalls Corinne Trang, author of "Essentials of Asian Cuisine," "The Asian Grill" and "Noodles Every Day."
Trang says her mom "would instruct me to add it to the pot to flavor beef broth" and "round out the sharp, spicy cinnamon that was also included in the dish."
A recipe calling for whole star anise usually means slices of the star anise fruit, with anywhere from five to 10 points to the star. Just remember to use this strong spice sparingly.
Use whole or broken pieces to flavor stews, soups, stocks, compotes, jams and desserts, and discard when done. Powdered anise can flavor dishes with duck, pork or poultry.
Trang made this lovely suggestion to gain the maximum flavor from the spice: Combine it with lemongrass and galangal in a light, simple syrup to drizzle generously over a citrus fruit salad.
Or try the spice in this rice noodle soup from Trang's book, "Noodles Every Day" (Chronicle, 2009). It's the national dish of Vietnam. Trang writes that, if it's made ahead, it "requires little effort for spectacular results."
RICE NOODLE SOUP WITH BEEF AND HERBS
8 to 12 ounces dried narrow flat rice sticks, soaked in water until pliable
2-1/2 quarts Vietnamese Beef Stock (recipe follows)
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
Fish sauce or salt
2 cups mung bean sprouts
1 to 1-1/2 pounds eye of round steak, partially frozen, and sliced paper-thin against the grain
3 limes, quartered
1 bunch fresh Thai basil or cilantro (leaves only)
Fried shallots for garnish
Hoisin sauce for serving
Chili-garlic sauce for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Cook noodles until tender yet firm, about 10 seconds. Drain and divide among large soup bowls.
Meanwhile, in another large pot, bring stock to a gentle boil over medium heat. About 5 minutes before serving, add the onion, and adjust the seasoning with fish sauce or salt, if necessary. Right before serving, bring the broth to a full boil.
Add some mung bean sprouts and layer a few beef slices over each serving of noodles. Ladle hot broth and some onion slices over the beef, covering the noodles. Squeeze fresh lime juice into each bowl, and garnish with freshly torn basil or cilantro and fried shallots. Serve immediately with hoisin sauce and chili-garlic sauce on the side for dipping the beef. Makes 6 servings.
-- Substitute thinly sliced chicken for the beef. Cook the chicken after the noodles in the same cooking water. Top each serving of noodles with this poached chicken.
-- Substitute shrimp or squid cut into rings for the beef. Cook after the noodles in the same cooking water and serve over the noodles.
VIETNAMESE BEEF STOCK
3 to 4 pounds raw meaty beef bones, such as oxtail or short ribs
1 large yellow onion
8 whole cloves
7 whole star anise
Two 4-inch cinnamon sticks
1 pound daikon, peeled and cut into 2-inch-thick pieces
3 ounces gingerroot, sliced
8 scallions, trimmed and crushed
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon white or black peppercorns
Kosher salt (optional)
Put oxtail or short ribs in large stock pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for 10 minutes to get rid of bone and blood particles. Drain, reserve meaty bones and rinse the pot well.
Return the bones to the same stockpot, add 5 quarts of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and add onion studded with cloves, star anise, cinnamon, daikon, ginger, scallions, fish sauce, sugar, peppercorns and salt, if desired. Simmer, partially covered, for 4 to 5 hours, until reduced to about 3 quarts, occasionally skimming off any foam from the surface. Strain and discard solids, reserving the meaty bones to pick on if so desired. Skim off fat. Makes about 3 quarts.
Note: Oxtail and beef tendon can be special-ordered from your butcher.
(Contact Monica Bhide at monica(at)monicabhide.com.)
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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