Sometimes labelled anise or fennel in the produce section

New Year’s resolution alert: yup, I was getting into a little food rut in December (possibly a happily induced sugar coma) so I’m refocusing myself on what I enjoy most–trying new foods or playing around with old ones and encouraging my kids to do the same.

Ingredient: anise or fennel

So let’s start the new year off with anise. You’ll find anise hanging out with the Swiss chard and spinach in the produce section. It looks almost like a giant-sized green onion with stalks that have small pieces gutting off that reminded me of dill.

Flavor

Mild licorice. Now here’s where it gets a little confusing: anise and fennel are not the same vegetable, although from what I’ve found you can use the two interchangeably in recipes. They have a similar flavor, although fennel is said to have a stronger licorice hit. When thumbing through recipes, I’ve often found fennel on the ingredient list, but not as often in the produce section.

Not to confuse the matter even more, but there is also a spice used typically in Asian cooking called anise, or star anise that looks like a dried flower you can grate and use in stir-fries or sweets. For a complete discussion about anise, I found WHFoods.com a good primer.

How to use anise or fennel

I’ve just started playing around with this new-to-me ingredient. So far, I’ve used it as a filling along with French entrees, like pairing it sauteed mushrooms as a filling in buckwheat crepes (recipe to come) and in Italian dishes that are already packed with vegetables. But you can also slice it thin to add zing to salads or coleslaw.

It was Compari on the Park‘s chef Zachary Yaquinto that got me to try anise–his recipe for fagioli calabrese calls for fennel, but since I could only find anise, I thought it was worth a try.

Wash the vegetable thoroughly before removing the feathery stalks from the bulb. Chop the bulb in half and then slice thin to use in the fagioli calabrese. I saved the top to use as a garnish. But you can also use them as you might fresh herbs–I’m thinking they’d be excellent in a homemade vinaigrette. Note: the licorice flavor is stronger when it’s used raw and becomes sweet when sauteed.

Kids reaction

The first time I made the pasta fagioli calabrese with the anise my teenager noticed the licorice undertones right away–and didn’t like them. She still ate it, but mentioned she’d rather have less anise and more spinach (I know, more spinach? I think I’m actually raising my kids to love spinach as much as I do). The next time I served it, my oldest didn’t even notice the anise. And my younger two who hadn’t liked their pasta mingling with so many other ingredients had no comment on the anise but were diligently trying to pick out any red peppers they found. By the end of the meal my oldest professed this was ‘one of her favorite dishes.’ Beyond the anise, the other big winner in this meal was the white canneloni beans (my substitute instead of butter beans). The combination of sweet anise, little tube pasta, beans, spinach, Parmesan cheese, and Italian sausage went over well with my crew (even if I had to eat all the red peppers my youngest two corralled to the side of their plates).

Your turn–have you cooked with anise/fennel? What did you think?

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