A Timely Star
The waft of spices in the house is one of the most evocative aspects of Christmas. Cinnamon, cloves, ground ginger and ‘mixed spice’ used to only appear in the kitchen at this time of year; typically to lace a glass of punch, smear a ham or flavour the puddings, mince pies or Christmas cake. These days spices are ubiquitous and we have become very familiar with the cuisines from around the world; enjoying the varied dimensions that they bring from afar to our own table. We have learned to use these pungent pods and seeds to create all kinds of delicious fare at any time of the year.
I like using cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in savoury dishes as well as sweet cakes, biscuits or poached fruit. A hint of warm spice will add a depth to any slow cooked stew or tray of roasted root vegetables. It might sound obvious but if you are trying something new it is wise to measure the quantity; next time you will be able to judge if it can take more or do with less (a lesson learnt the hard way). Balancing the flavours can be tricky but it is an enjoyable exercise to experiment and gain an understanding of how each spice behaves on its own or combined with another. Spices bring a world of possibilities to any kitchen and most cultures use them purposefully at times of festivity or ceremony.
The healing and soothing properties of spices and the plants they come from, (flowers, seeds, roots, and berries) have been the original source of what we now recognise as the Pharmaceutical Industry. In particular, it is perhaps no accident that Star Anise should step forward at this time of year to play a significant role; this enticing starry cluster of seed has a very pertinent repertoire to help us through the winter darkness. It is an age-old spice used in Asian and Eurasian cooking and has an impressive reputation for its medicinal properties.
The star anise, Illicium Verum, is not the same as Anise/Aniseed but shares the same flavour by virtue of anethole which is a compound common to fennel and liquorice, though is botanically unrelated. From a shrub native to Vietnam and South West china, Star Anise is the dominant tone of Chinese 5 spice (combined with cloves, fennel seeds, cinnamon and Sichuan pepper) and is the essential note in Vietnamese Pho (a beef and noodle soup).
Star anise brings great medicinal promise to us westerners in the throes of winter chills and over-indulgent festivities. It has been traditionally used in the treatment for coughs and colds and is used industrially to produce an anti-influenza drug (Tamiflu), utilizing its very potent shikimic acid.
Sip some star anise tea after a meal to help alleviate any digestive ailments that may follow. It is reputed to help in the treatment of indigestion, bloating, gas or constipation.
Using the spice to enhance a meal will hopefully help prevent any of the above discomfort! Star anise will marry well with fennel to use with fish or fowl. It is frequently paired with cinnamon for sweet or savoury dishes. Slow cooked lamb is transformed with the addition of this pungent, warm spice as well as some cinnamon, to the cooking liquid. The addition of seasonal root vegetables and red onions will make a meal that feels like a warm hug.
Star Anise with cloves or cinnamon will make a comforting tea or latte. Play around with it and discover your own preference. Let it mull your wine, deepen your coffee or add pizazz to your biscotti…. Star Anise is my flavour of the month.
To make star anise tea I just bring two or three whole stars to the boil in about 1 pint of water. Simmer gently for two or three minutes and then allow it to steep for about 15 minutes. Add a stick of cinnamon for added depth if you wish. Serve with a wedge of fresh orange and sweeten to taste with honey.