Star anise (Recipe: Thai iced tea)
To celebrate Ted's sixtieth birthday, I sent quart-size mason jars to friends and family, and asked each person to fill his or her jar with sixty somethings for Ted. A few weeks later, the jars (more than thirty of them) started arriving in the mail, no two filled with the same thing.
Marbles ("to replace the ones you're losing"). Miniature soccer balls. Beach shells. A list of the Oscar-winning movies for each year of his life. Sixty photos of Ted through the years. Caramels (didn't last long). Bolts and screws ("replacement parts"). Toy soldiers. Mosaic tiles. Palindromes.
My own jar held sixty unbroken, unblemished, perfect star anise. For the man who keeps the spice in my life.
Star anise, one of the fundamental components of Chinese five-spice powder, is the fruit of an evergreen magnolia tree, native to China; it's also cultivated in India, Japan and the Philippines. The tree fruits in its sixth year, and can continue to bear fruit for up to a century. Fruit is picked unripe, and dried in the sun. The Chinese names for star anise -- ba jiao in Mandarin, bat gok in Cantonese -- both mean "eight corners", a reference to the eight canoe-shaped carpels on each fruit. (Sometimes you find a pod with six carpels, or twelve. I think of them as lucky, like a four-leaf clover.)
Star anise has a sweet and pungent and fennel-like flavor; when you taste it, your tongue might tingle a bit. It's a powerful spice, so use little bits at a time. If a recipe calls for ground star anise, do it yourself, grinding just as much as you need. As with most spices, once you grind it, the potency begins to degrade immediately.
In my Asian market, star anise is sold in bags ($4 per pound, more or less), so you can see exactly what you're getting. The pod itself is more flavorful and aromatic than the seeds, so don't worry too much if you open the bag and find many seeds that have been set free from their pods. It's the pods you're after.
Star anise is fundamental to the style of Chinese cuisine known as "red cooking", where meat (often chicken, duck or pork) or vegetables are turned a deep red-brown color by being braised in a soy-sauce flavored broth. You'll often find a star anise in pho, the famous Vietnamese soup, and in some Indian dishes as well. In Western cooking, you'll use star anise in recipes for cake and in the poaching liquid for fruit.
By the way, if you do a search online for star anise, you'll get as many results for healing, spirituality, and wicca as you do for culinary uses, though I did find a recipe for unicorn milk. Seems that, in addition to adding authenticity to your cooking, star anise also enhances your psychic powers, and brings good luck.
Thai iced tea
Who could resist this refreshing drink? The recipe is adapted from Aliza Green's Field Guide to Herbs & Spices. Serves 6.
1 star anise
1 tsp orange blossom water
1 vanilla bean
Pinch each of ground clove and ground cinnamon
1/2 cup Chinese black tea leaves
1 cup sugar
Few drops red food coloring (optional)
Half-and-half or sweetened condensed milk
Bring 1/2 gallon of cold water to a boil in a saucepan. Add star anise, orange blossom water, vanilla bean, clove, cinnamon, and black tea. Boil for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and food coloring (optional, but traditional). Cover, and steep until the tea is tepid. Fill tall glasses at least halfway with crushed ice. Strain the tea and pour over the ice. Top each glass with half-and-half or sweetened condensed milk.