Pretty to look at, but what do you do with it?
That about sums up how most of us feel about star anise. And that's why it's mostly been relegated to the backwaters of spice cabinets in the U.S. What most people don't realize is that star anise actually is a deliciously potent spice that can do amazing things for your cooking, especially for meat.
But first, the basics. Star anise is the fruit -- yes, fruit -- of an evergreen tree native to southern China (where most of it still is produced). When dried, that fruit resembles a 1-inch rust-colored star, usually with six to eight points. Each point contains a small, shiny seed.
The flavor -- which is contained in both the seeds and the star itself -- is sweet and licorice-like, similar to aniseed (though the plants are not related).
In China, which has used it for centuries, star anise is a key ingredient in five-spice powder (with cloves, cinnamon, fennel and Sichuan peppercorns).
Despite its sweetness, star anise traditionally is used in savory recipes, particularly with meats. It often is added whole to soups, stews and braising broths, to which it adds a sweet-licorice-peppery flavor.
Star anise can be used whole or ground. When whole, it usually is added to liquids destined for a slow simmer or braise. It usually is removed and discarded from the dish before serving. Ground star anise is more versatile. It also is more potent and should be added with care. And like all whole spices, it should be ground just before using.
The best way to try it is in a slow braise of beef. Start with a base of broth, then add onions, soy sauce and whole star anise. If you like, add some Sichuan peppercorns, too.
But it's the onions and soy sauce that are key. The combination of flavor compounds in onions and soy sauce works with the star anise to naturally intensify the flavor of the meat, much in the way MSG does. It's amazing.
What else can you do with it? Play around with its sweet side.
I've included a basic recipe for grinding star anise with sugar and cinnamon, along with suggestions for using it. It's an easy, child-friendly way to try star anise.
Cinnamon-Star Anise Sugar
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes 1/4 cup
3-inch cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
1/2 star anise
2 tablespoons sugar
Combine all ingredients in an electric spice grinder or a blender. Grind until reduced to a fine powder, about 1 to 2 minutes. Use as directed below.
Nutrition information per teaspoon (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 6 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 0 g protein; 0 g fiber; 10 mg sodium.
-- Slather butter over slices of bread, then sprinkle with the cinnamon-star anise sugar. Toast under a broiler or in a toaster oven until bubbly and lightly browned.
-- Mix the entire batch with 1 cup of quick oats and a stick of softened butter. Sprinkle this mixture over blueberry muffins before baking.
-- Use 1 tablespoon of the mixture in place of 1 tablespoon of the sugar in your favorite pancake or waffle recipe.
-- Use instead of plain sugar to sweeten applesauce. Or use in place of the sugar in apple crisp.
-- Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet. Slice a banana lengthwise down the center. Add a teaspoon of the sugar to the skillet, then add the bananas and fry on both sides for several minutes, or until lightly browned. Eat the banana slices on their own, or use as topping for ice cream or pancakes. Be sure to use the liquid in the skillet as syrup on the pancakes or ice cream.
-- Pan-fry your favorite meatball recipe (or use frozen) in a bit of melted butter. Transfer the meatballs to an oven-safe platter and keep warm in a 200 F oven. Meanwhile, return the uncleaned skillet to the heat. Add more butter, a sliced onion and a splash of soy sauce. Cook until the onion is tender, then add 1 teaspoon of the sugar mixture and a splash of white wine to deglaze the pan. Serve the meatballs topped with the pan sauce.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking." His Off the Beaten Aisle column also appears at FoodNetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.