Category Archives: spices

Exploring Spices: Star Anise

This week I’m starting a new series called “Exploring Spices” in order to learn more about unusual condiments and try out new recipes. I’m starting out with star anise, a beautiful star-shaped spice popular in China (where it is an essential part of the 5-spice powder), India and Vietnam (a key part of pho).

Star anise has a host of historical medicinal uses, but for Western society, the most likely way you’ll encounter it is in Tamiflu. Star anise is a surprising ingredient in this drug, used to fight the influenza virus.

But let’s get cooking. Many Asian cuisines use star anise in broths and soups in order to a beautiful complexity from this spicy, pungent condiment. In this first recipe, we’ll add star anise to beef broth for a lovely, fragrant, brothy soupĀ reminiscentĀ of Vietnamese pho.

Where can you get star anise? You can probably find it in your local supermarket, but check out Penzey’s for great quality.

Fragrant Star Anise-Spiced Broth with Tofu and Vegetables


8 oz fresh wheat or rice noodles, cooked, drained and rinsed in cold water

1 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, cut in half

3 whole cloves

1 star anise

6 cups beef broth

2 cups water

1 Tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp brown sugar

2 tsp fish sauce

1 pack firm tofu, chopped into 3/4″ cubes

4 cups baby or regular bok choy, washed and chopped

1 cup snow peas

1/4 cup fresh Thai basil leaves

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves


1. Place onion, star anise, cloves, garlic, ginger in a large stockpot and cook over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes.

2. Add the beef broth and water and bring to a boil.

3. Strain the broth mixture with a fine strainer and put it back in the stockpot. Add the soy sauce, fish sauce and brown sugar and bring to a boil again.

4. Add the bok choy and snow peas and cook for about 4 minutes.

5. While the vegetables are cooking, arrange 1/4 of the noodles into four large bowls. Divide the tofu into 4 servings and sprinkle the tofu cubes over the bowls.

6. Pour 2 cups of broth into each bowl with noodles and garnish with the mint and basil. Serve hot.

Serves 4

Leave a comment

Posted by on May 3, 2010 in Soups, spices


Tags: , , , , , ,

Hot, Hot, Hot – Chile de Arbol Sauce

When I was in Ixtapa this Christmas, I spent time in the kitchen with Sol (Soledad) who is an incredible cook. The woman knows dozens of salsas and hundreds of Mexican dishes all in her head. My task while I was there: to learn how to make her fabulous hot sauces. I sneaked some dried chiles (which can all be found here) in my backpack and set about to recreate her spicy delights.

For this first sauce, I used a chile known as Chile de Arbol. This pepper is long and skinny (although not as skinny as some of the Thai peppers) and is a deep, dark red when dried. One of the things Sol stressed one should do is toast the chiles before making the sauces. A word of caution here: the spicy components of the chile are volatile, so when making these sauces, keep pets and kids out of the kitchen, use rubber gloves, and open a window for ventilation. Do not touch your face or eyes while preparing this sauce. Yes, it’s hot.

Chile de arbol peppers are very spicy, rating 8 out of 10 in the hotness scale, i.e. burns your tongue. Mixed in this tomato-based salsa, though, the spiciness is toned down and the smokiness is accentuated.

Chile de Arbol Hot Sauce


1/3 cup red wine vinegar

3/4 cup chile de arbol peppers, dried

1 small onion, sliced

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 cups water

6 ounce can tomato paste


1. Toast the chiles and onion on a saucepan until you begin to smell the smokey, peppery smell. Try not to inhale it directly, as it can irritate your sinuses.

2. Using gloves, chop off the woody ends of the chiles and, if desired (to reduce spiciness), pour out the seeds.

3. Place the onion, chiles, vinegar, oil, water and tomato paste in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Taste. You can add more vinegar, water and tomato paste to thin the sauce if you want (and also to tone down the spiciness).

4. Pour into jars and freeze whatever you will not use in the next week.

This sauce is great in soups and can be added to Mexican dishes such as huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, enfrijoladas. It is very spicy, so a little goes a long way!

1 Comment

Posted by on February 20, 2009 in spices


Tags: , , ,

Cocoa Spiced Rustic Rub

For Christmas, I put together this rub and gave it away to friends and family. My sister and mom rubbed it all over a fresh, organic chicken a few days before roasting and the result was amazing. Buy your spices in the Mexican/Latino/Hispanic section of the grocery store where they are sold in larger quantities in plastic bags. They are much more economical that way.

Cocoa Spiced Rustic Rub

1/2 cup paprika

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

5 Tbsp. black pepper

6 Tbsp. onion powder

3 Tbsp. salt

2 1/2 Tbsp. dried oregano

2 1/2 Tbsp. dried thyme

3 Tbsp. packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch-process)

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl until blended. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 3 3/4 cups.

*From Enlightened Chocolate, by Camilla V. Saulsbury

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 10, 2009 in Meat, spices


Tags: , ,

Love that Umami

seasonings.jpgWhen I was a little kid growing up in Mexico, we put Maggi on everything. We mixed up the savory liquid with chili and lime and drizzled it over carrots, added it to soups, tacos. It just made everything taste better. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood that the magic behind our beloved childhood seasoning was MSG.

Maggi, a soy sauce-like seasoning made out of vegetable protein, was invented in the 1800s in Switzerland. Although I associate it with Mexican food, it’s sold all over the world and people in Thailand, New Zealand, China and India all associate it with their cuisine.

What is it about this sauce that has made it such a ubiquitous seasoning? Umami, say the experts.

Food reporters have been salivating over the elusive umami taste lately. There was the article in the New York Times by Julia Moskin and recently an article in the Chicago Tribune by Stevenson Swanson. Umami has be heralded as the “fifth” taste, a protein-rich sensation that adds a certain flavor to foods. You can find umami in cheeses, roasted meats, chicken broth and mushrooms. It’s that savory, unctuous taste that you can’t quite describe. In other words, it’s Maggi.

MSG, by the way, has received so much bad press that people go out of their way to avoid it. It was linked to headaches for a long time, but I like the way the Chicago Tribune article put it: everything in moderation. Too much sugar and you get diabetes, too much salt and you get high blood pressure. So it goes with MSG (umami).


Posted by on March 25, 2008 in spices


Tags: ,

Spice It Up

It’s a familiar fixture in any kitchen. Often forgotten, relegated to a inconspicuous dark corner of counter space or pantry shelf.

s_turmeric.jpgAh, yes, the spice rack.

Most of your spices just sit there, forgotten. Depending on your level of experimentation, a few may emerge. But if you’re like most people, by the time you finally reach for the oregano, thyme or marjoram, it tastes like old, dusty cardboard.

Solution? Forget buying an entire spice rack at your local gourmet food store or an overpriced glass jar of sage at your local supermarket. Purchase only the spices you need at Penzey’s ( in small quantities.

Experiment with one spice at a time (their fabulous catalog includes a bunch of recipes) before stocking your entire pantry. Their spices are much cheaper than those you would find at the supermarket and you can often find a variety of spices. Case in point, they sell four different kinds of cinnamon! Penzeys also offers spice sets that make perfect gifts for the home cook.

In case you need some inspiration to whip up a spicy dish, here’s a delicious soup adapted from Martha Stewart’s Healthy Quick Cook. When I first made the recipe, I found it a little watery, so I added a few veggies to make it a little more hearty. Serve with crusty white bread.

Curried Tomato Seafood Bouillabaisse


1 28-oz can whole tomatoes

3 cups vegetable stock

3 cups water

1/2 tsp cardamom seeds

2 whole cloves

1 1-inch stick cinnamon

1 1/2 tsps crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons medium spicy curry powder

1 lemongrass stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 lb. assorted white fish, mussels, clams (Trader Joe’s has a perfect frozen seafood mix for this), fresh (or, if frozen, thawed)

1 cup edamame

1 cup chopped bok choy

salt and pepper

1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves


1. In a large pot, combine the tomatoes, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, red pepper, curry powder and lemongrass with the stock and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for another 20 minutes.

2. Add the fish to the broth and cook about 10 minutes.

3. Add the edamame and bok choy (feel free to experiment with other veggies).

4. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Ladle into soup bowls and top with the parsley.

(serves 4)

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 18, 2008 in Soups, spices


Tags: ,