When I first moved to Rhode Island, and was still learning the ropes, I asked a teenager working in the produce department in our town's grocery store if he had any fennel.
"What's that?" he replied, with the blankest of blank stares.
"Fennel," I tried again. "It's a vegetable, looks kind of like bok choy, with green stalks on top..."
Another customer came to my aid. "Oh," she explained to the grocery kid, "she means anise."
Anise. That's the way it is, here. Fennel is anise.
So I wondered: if fennel is anise, is fennel seed the same as anise seed?
No. Not at all. Not really, though they have some things in common.
Both have a kind of licorice aroma and flavor, and both are related to parsley. That's where the similarity ends.
Anise seed comes from Pimpinella anisum, a plant native to the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East but also now cultivated in Spain and Mexico, and easy to grow from seed in your own garden.
Its use is documented as far back as 1500 BC, when anise seed was best known as a digestive aid, an aphrodisiac, and a warder-offer of The Evil Eye.
In modern times, though, anise lends its distinctive flavor to breads, cakes and cookies, and also to three classic liqueurs: pastis, anisette and ouzo.
Anise pairs well with fish and seafood, root vegetables, chestnuts, figs and apples. If you're a baker, try fig and anise bread, orange-anise biscotti or pistachio-anise wafers; or you might like anise and fennel seed carrot soup, pomegranate borscht, roasted asparagus with anise, or bouillabaisse.
Purchase the seed whole, to retain the maximum flavor. Grind as needed in a mortar, or crush it with a heavy frying pan or rolling pin.
That's how we do it here in Rhode Island.
Beet and fennel salad
The flavor of this salad gets better when made a few hours in advance, or even the day before. Serves 8.
1-1/2 lbs cooked beets, cut into quarters (can use pre-cooked fresh beets from the produce section)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Kosher or sea salt
Fresh black pepper
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup diced fennel bulb (save some fronds for garnish)
1/2 tsp crushed anise seeds*
Cut each beet into small chunks. In a medium bowl beat together with a fork the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Stir in the onion, fennel bulb, and anise, then mix in the beets gently. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, garnished with fennel fronds.
*To crush anise seed, either use a mortar and pestle, or smash the seeds with a heavy frying pan or rolling pin.
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