Star anise (Recipe: Vietnamese pho bo)
What's the difference between star anise and aniseed?
Are they two parts of the same plant?
Is one the seed of the other?
Do they taste alike?
And are they equally effective against the Evil Eye?
Inquiring minds want to know.
First, star anise and aniseed (or anise) are not related botanically. Well, they are, but only very far back in the gene pool; both are in the magnolia class. Star anise (which is, confusingly, sometimes called star aniseed) is the fruit of Illicium verum, native to China. Aniseed (or anise) is the fruit of Pimpinella anisum, native to the eastern Mediterranean.
Second, star anise and aniseed both contain anethole, a chemical compound that accounts for their licorice flavor, but star anise has a stronger and more pungent taste.
In my Asian market, star anise is sold in bags ($1.85 for 12 ounces, last week), so you can see exactly what you're getting. The pod itself is more flavorful and aromatic than the seeds, so don't worry if you open the bag and find many seeds that have been set free from their pods. It's the pods (called schizocarps) you're after.
One of the fundamental components of Chinese five-spice powder, star anise is popular in Chinese "red cooking", where meat (often beef or pork) is turned a deep red-brown color by being braised in a dark soy sauce flavored broth. It's equally delicious in roasted duck or risotto, peach crumble or pea soup, iced tea or ice cream, cookies or chai.
Most often, star anise is added to a recipe whole, to be steeped in liquids and then removed before the conclusion of the recipe. If a recipe calls for ground star anise (and few do, except in baking), grind only what you need. As with most spices, once you grind it, the potency begins to degrade immediately. Stored whole, in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, star anise will keep in your pantry for two years.
And while I don't know for sure about the Evil Eye, I do know that in China some people chew a whole star anise after a meal as a breath sweetener. That doesn't sound evil to me!
Vietnamese pho bo (beef noodle soup)
Nothing reminds me more of our visit to Vietnam than pho (pronounced FUH). On our very first morning in Hanoi, we found a pho stand on the street. Sitting on very tiny plastic stools, we were served a bowl of rice noodles. Then the server poured hot soup over the noodles, and topped it with slices of raw beef. Stirring the beef into the hot broth cooked the beef and sterilized the chopsticks! Each diner then garnished at will from a platter piled high with fresh mung bean sprouts, cilantro, mint and basil. This recipe, inspired by one in The World of Street Food by Troth Wells, serves 6-8.
1-1/2 lbs beef brisket, point cut
2 quarts water
1-inch piece of ginger, sliced
3 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbsp fish sauce (I use Three Crabs brand)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 lb flank steak
2 cups pad Thai rice noodles
2-3 scallions, finely sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges
1/2 cup nuoc cham, for dipping
1 cup fresh mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup fresh spearmint leaves
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into large shreds (if you have lime basil in your herb garden, use that to add extra lime flavor to your soup)
To a large stockpot, add the brisket and water. Bring to a boil, then add the ginger, star anise, cloves and cinnamon. Reduce heat to simmer, partially cover the pot, and cook for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is quite tender. Remove the meat and set aside to cool. Skim the top of the beef stock, then strain the stock into a large bowl, and return it to the stockpot. Add the fish sauce, salt and black pepper to taste, stir, and set on the stove on lowest heat. When the meat is cool enough to handle, slice thinly, and set aside.
In the meantime, place the flank steak in the freezer.
In another pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Blanch the rice noodles for 2-3 minutes to soften. Drain, and divide among 6 or 8 individual bowls. Top with some of the sliced cooked brisket.
Remove the flank steak from the freezer (it should be cold, but not frozen solid), and slice into paper-thin slices. Bring the beef stock to a boil, and fill each soup bowl. Divide the flank steak among the individual soup bowls. Sprinkle with chopped scallions, and add a squeeze of lime. Pass the platter with garnishes, so each diner can add his or her own herbs to the soup. Place nuoc cham in small bowls for dipping the meat.