For The Love Of Licorice

Fennel and a bag of candy sit next to a checkerboard with coin-shaped licorice candy

Licorice like these candy coins made an impression during food writer T. Susan Chang's youth. It can be an overbearing flavor, she says, but in the right context, ingredients like fennel (above), tarragon and basil deliver just the right dose of licorice. T. Susan Chang for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption T. Susan Chang for NPR

If you've spent any time around people of Dutch extraction, you probably know about the black licorice. When I was a teenager, my stepfamily was Dutch, and I have vivid memories of staring into a drawer full of what looked like black checkers and daring myself, like a high diver, to take the plunge. For a person whose palate was at one with the universe as long as that universe consisted principally of soy sauce, it was not a casual undertaking.

When I did work up the courage to try, I ended up with a mouthful of salt and tarry pine sugars, curiosity instantly quenched, desperate for dental floss. But as I know now, black licorice is only the extreme end of a spectrum that reaches from fennel to Thai basil to anise seed to tarragon, from mild to pungent. The flavor of licorice has many colors, and not all of them are so dark.

What all licorice has in common is a certain sweetness that is like no other — a giddy salute that starts high in your nose, in the same place you detect mint, and then lingers, like a salt taffy, in the sides of your mouth. For a powerful demonstration of how critical smell is to taste, hold your nose some time while you're chewing on a fennel seed. Poof. Suddenly, it's gone. The secret behind the sweetness — and just how sweet it is — I'll get to later.

I have always felt that the flavor of licorice overstays its welcome, like a chatty visitor whose friendliness turns out to disguise a monologuing narcissist. Yet I have come to love it in dishes where other ingredients complement and tame its one-dimensional refrain. In the right context, it never fails to be a charming, even captivating, conversationalist.

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the regular cookbook reviewer for The Boston Globe, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

The interesting thing about licorice is that it can travel effortlessly from appetizer to entree to dessert — unlike, say, anchovies or butterscotch. In the same way, the flavor of licorice travels effortlessly through the plant kingdom — from root and bulb to leaf, even to flower, pollen and seed.

If you like your licorice in vegetable form, make friends with fennel. With its fat pale bulb and feathery fronds, the fennel plant looks unassuming and mild, and that's what it's like on the plate. You can intensify its sugars by caramelizing it in butter. Then its sweetness becomes rich and succulent.

For leafy licorice, you want the herbs of summer. A single chopped teaspoon of green and grassy tarragon is like an instant picnic (you know what I mean if you've ever sat in the shade with a whole container of tarragon chicken salad to yourself, eating it as quietly as possible so you won't have to share). Or holy basil — there must be hundreds of cousins in the basil family, but this is the one that speaks in a fluent, floral-spicy, scented licorice idiom and defines so many spectacular Thai stir-fries and curries.

If there is a crowning dish in the kingdom of licorice, I think it has to be bouillabaisse, the fish stew from Marseilles. There are probably as many ways to make bouillabaisse as there are fish in the sea, but the one I like has toasted fennel seeds, chopped fennel bulbs and a fish stock infused with fennel fronds. What's more, it's finished with Pernod, which you can call an anise liqueur if you like, but which I call liquid licorice.

Because I'm sure now is exactly the moment you were thinking you could use a foray into organic chemistry, I shall reveal the secret source of sweetness in licorice flavors: It's the aromatic compound anethole. (Well, OK, in tarragon it's anethole's close cousin, estragole.) Subtly but insistently, anethole weaves its sweet and haunting anise theme into the essential oils of plants — much in the way my 9-year-old manages to weave the subject of his Magic fantasy trading cards into every conversation.

But his normally ceaseless patter came to an unaccustomed pause the other day when I brought out the black licorice coins for the first time. Within minutes, both he and his little sister had their jaws Superglued shut, their expressions of rapture muted by an inability to masticate freely. As soon as Noah could talk again, he was asking for more.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Anethole — if you can believe it — is 13 times sweeter than sugar. But then again, so is my son.

Thai Basil Fried Rice

The same plant goes by many names — Thai basil, sweet basil, Thai sweet basil, anise basil, licorice basil. It’s available at Asian groceries, and you'll know it by its distinctive scent and taste. Don't confuse it with the more complicated, less ingratiating holy basil, which would taste different, though also good, in this recipe adapted from The Spice Merchant's Daughter by Christina Arokiasamy (Clarkson Potter 2008).

Thai Basil Fried Rice i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Thai Basil Fried Rice
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 small serrano chilies, seeded and chopped

3 scallions, both white and green parts, chopped

1/4 teaspoon salt

12 ounces large shrimp, peeled and deveined

3 cups cooked rice (preferably jasmine rice)

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 teaspoon fish sauce, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup firmly packed fresh Thai basil or holy basil leaves, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Heat a wok or large nonstick saute pan over medium heat for 40 seconds and then add the oil around the perimeter of the wok so that it coats the sides and bottom. When the surface shimmers slightly, after about 30 seconds, add the garlic, chilies, scallions and salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic is golden brown and fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the shrimp and stir fry until it turns orange, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook, using a spatula to break up any clumps of rice and mixing the ingredients until well combined, about 4 minutes. Add the soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar and cook for a few seconds.

Add the basil and cilantro leaves and cook until the leaves begin to wilt, about 30 seconds. Transfer the rice to a serving plate. Serve immediately.

Fennel With Butter And Parmesan

We often think of fennel just as an aromatic vegetable for infusing stocks and giving character to a soffritto. But it's delicious prepared simply, on its own, as in this classic Italian recipe first shared with me by my friend Nardo.

Fennel With Butter And Parmesan i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Fennel With Butter And Parmesan
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

Salt

3 or 4 medium fennel bulbs

4 tablespoons butter

Freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, prepare the fennel. Trim off the base of the bulb, the stalks and fronds; discard or reserve for stock. Halve each bulb and then slice each bulb into 4 wedges (6 if the bulbs are large). Carefully drop the wedges into the boiling water and cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Drain.

In the largest, heaviest skillet you own, melt the butter over medium-high heat. As soon as the foam subsides, add the fennel pieces cut side down. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, turning at least once, until the fennel is golden and caramelized. Transfer to a warm serving dish and sprinkle with the Parmesan.

Chicken Salad With Tarragon And Walnuts

Tarragon gives chicken salad a grassy sweetness, and you don't need very much to experience its full impact when the herb is fresh. Blending tarragon with parsley gives the herbal flavor some depth and stability, and balances out nicely with the walnuts. The technique I use for caramelizing the shallots leaves them with a bit of crunch to go with their sweetness.

Chicken Salad With Tarragon And Walnuts
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

2 large chicken breasts (4 halves)

2 shallots

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup walnut halves or pieces, lightly toasted

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1/3 cup finely chopped tarragon

2/3 cup mayonnaise, or to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Place the chicken breasts in a pot just large enough to accommodate them. Cover with water and salt the water generously (as if you were making pasta). Heat the pot, uncovered, over a medium-high flame, just until it reaches a boil. Immediately reduce to a simmer. Cook very gently for about 15 minutes, until the chicken is just cooked through. Drain and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, peel and halve the shallots lengthwise. Lay each half, cut side down, on the cutting board and slice them into fine half-moons (1/16-inch thick). Toss the shallots into a bowl, sprinkle with olive oil and a little salt, and crunch them between your fingers until they fall apart into half-rings and the oil is evenly distributed. Heat a small, heavy skillet over high heat (if you have only a lightweight skillet, use medium heat). Add the shallot rings and cook, stirring frequently with a fork, until they have a touch of golden-brown but have not entirely wilted.

Cut the cooled chicken into 1/2-inch chunks or shred by hand (I prefer shreds — I think they pick up flavor better). Toss with the shallots, walnuts, herbs, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste. Chill for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days. Serve cold.

Bouillabaisse For The American Kitchen

I know, I know, this is an all-day-plus project. Trust me, it's worth it. Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore in Fish Without a Doubt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2008) have adapted the classic fish soup of Marseilles into the American idiom, while preserving the flavor-building steps that give the soup its body and intensely aromatic character. Substitutions for the various types of fish or shellfish are fine — just use what's fresh. Ask a fishmonger or someone in the supermarket seafood section about fish heads and bones. This recipe should be started the day before you plan to serve it. Serve it with excellent bread, and prepare to swoon.

Bowl of bouillabaisse, brimming with seafood, served with Pernod and loaf of crusty bread
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For The Fumet

2 fennel bulbs

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 whole garlic heads, halved through the equator

Green parts of 2 leeks, chopped

1 large onion, cut into thin slices

3 to 4 sprigs thyme

2 teaspoons fennel seeds, toasted

1 bay leaf

Big pinch saffron threads

4 pounds fish frames and heads (from snapper and black sea bass if possible)

Coarse salt

Shrimp shells (see below)

About 8 cups water

Stems from 1 bunch parsley

For The Soup Base

1/3 cup olive oil

3 cups chopped onions

3 cups chopped fennel (from the inner bulbs reserved from the fumet)

1/2 cup chopped garlic

White parts of 2 leeks, chopped

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1 (14.5-ounce) can tomatoes

Coarse salt

1/2 cup dry vermouth

1/2 cup Pernod

For Fish And Shellfish

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon dry vermouth

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

Pinch of saffron threads

1/2 pound sea scallops, tough bits removed

1/2 pound large (21-30 count) shrimp, shelled (reserve shells for fumet)

1 pound halibut fillet, cut into chunks

12 littleneck clams, scrubbed

1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded

For Serving

Croutons or fresh bread

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Rouille (recipe below)

For The Fumet

Trim the stalks and fronds off of the fennel. Remove the outermost thick layer of the fennel (the one with outside scratches or imperfections). Chop the stalks, fronds and outer layers and add to the fumet. Reserve the inner bulbs for the soup base.

Spoon the oil into a wide stockpot (you want a lot of surface area for fumet) and layer in the garlic, leek greens, fennel, onion, thyme, fennel seeds, bay leaf and saffron. Cover, turn the heat to medium-high and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, take out your heaviest knife and chop into the spines of the fish frames on both sides at about 2-inch intervals. You’re just cracking the bones open, not trying to cut the frames into pieces. Wash the heads and frames thoroughly under cold water to get rid of the blood.

Season the frames and heads with salt and set them on top of the vegetables. Cover the pot and sweat for another 20 minutes, or until the bones are just opaque.

Add the shrimp shells and barely cover the solids with water. It will take about 8 cups.

Add the parsley stems, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and bring to a simmer.

Turn off the heat and let the fumet sit for 1 hour.

Strain the fumet into a clean pot and reduce it over medium-high heat to 6 cups. This will be enough for 2 batches of bouillabaisse. Let cool, then freeze half of the fumet for another time.

For The Soup Base

Place a stockpot over medium-high heat. When the pot’s hot, add the olive oil, onions and fennel. Saute until the onions soften, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and leeks, crumble in the saffron and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes.

Reserve 1 of the canned tomatoes for the marinade. Crush the remaining tomatoes with your hands and add them, and their juices, to the pot. Season with salt and bring to an active simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have thickened.

Pour in the vermouth and Pernod and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 2 minutes, to lose the alcohol taste. Add 3 cups fumet and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight.

For The Rouille

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 tablespoon water

Big pinch saffron threads

2 slices white bread (something like Pepperidge Farm), crusts removed, cubed

2 garlic cloves, minced or put through a press

2 large egg yolks

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

1/2 cup olive oil.

Bring the vinegar, water and saffron to a boil in a tiny saucepan (or zap it in the microwave).

Put the bread in a small bowl and pour in the vinegar and water, scraping to make sure you add all the saffron. Stir to moisten all the bread cubes.

Scrape the bread into a food processor and add the garlic, egg yolks and cayenne. Season with salt and white pepper. Pulse to make a smooth paste. Scrape down the sides. With the motor running, pour in the oil in a steady stream.

Scrape the sauce out into a bowl.

For Fish And Shellfish

Cut the reserved tomato into small bits and put it in a medium bowl with the oil, vermouth and garlic. Crumble in the saffron and stir. Add the scallops, shrimp and halibut and stir well to coat with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours.

To finish, bring the soup base to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the clams and the scallops, shrimp and halibut, along with any juices in the bowl, cover and cook for 3 minutes. Add the mussels and bring back to a boil, then cover and turn off the heat. Let the soup sit for a few minutes, until the mussels open.

Divide the soup among soup plates, garnish with the parsley and serve right away with bread or croutons and rouille.

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