Friday, July 20, 2007

ANISE: This licorice-tasting herb is equally at home on the spice rack as it is in the medicine cabinet.

Anise, one of the oldest known herbs, may be indigenous to Egypt and Asia Minor, but it's been cultivated so long, it's hard to tell. The ancient Egyptians grew anise for food, drink, and medicine, using both the feathery leaves and licorice-flavored seed. The pharaohs' medical texts prescribe the aromatic plant for stomach complaints, bladder ailments, and toothache. Egyptian anise was famous in the ancient world, second only to the Cretan variety.

The Romans planted the herb all over Tuscany for use in their special spiced cake, mustaceum, which also contains cumin, new wine, fat, cheese, and grated bay bark, and is baked on bay leaves-the world's first spiced wedding cake. The Romans brought anise north to Europe and England. Greek and Roman medical writers recommended suspending anise from a pillow to give the sleeper youthful looks and good dreams.

The herb is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, and it shows how valuable an herb it was-mint, anise, and cumin were used to pay tithes. Charlemagne commanded, in the 9th century AD, that the herbs (including anise) growing in Saint Gall's monastery should be planted on all his royal estates, thus spreading the fragrant plant further through Europe. The herb became so valuable in England that importers paid a tax on it. During the reign of Edward I, anise was one of the drugs taxed when carried across the Bridge of London. Cloth bags filled with iris and anise scented the royal linens of Edward IV. Ibn Baithar, the 13th century physician and botanist from Malaga, Spain, mentions its medicinal value.

The American colonists brought the valuable herb to the new world. In 1619, the first Assembly of Virginia decreed that "each man, as he is settled upon his division, plant (among other plants) six aniseeds and that each are to make trial thereof the nexte season." Anise's long popularity throughout so many lands stems from its many uses: culinary, household, cosmetic, aromatic, and medicinal.

All parts of the plant can be used in the kitchen. The seed flavors baked goods, such as German springerle and Italian biscotti, cream cheese, pickles, curries, coleslaw, egg dishes, and liqueurs, such as the French pastis and Greek ouzo. Anisette combines anise, coriander, and fennel seeds in sweet vodka. The flowers can be added to fruit salads, as can the leaves. Freshly-chopped leaves also enhance dips, cheese spreads, vegetables, or green salads. Mixed into stews and soups, the stem and roots of anise give just a hint of licorice.

As a beauty aid, the ground seeds are added to face packs, and the oil scents perfumes, toothpastes, soaps, and mouthwashes. Crushed seeds can be used in potpourri.

Medicinally, an infusion of anise seed makes an antiseptic tea for colds and coughs. It soothes colic in babies and helps nausea. Its essential oil helps to expel gas. Gently crush one to two teaspoons of anise seed to release the essential oil. Pour one cup of boiling water over the seeds and steep for five to ten minutes.

Anise, along with carrots, belongs to the Umbelliferae family. These plants have rounded or flat-topped flower clusters with individual flower stalks rising from the same point, forming an umbrella shape; in fact, umbella is Latin for "parasol." The graceful, attractive annual grows to two feet tall from a thin, spindle-shaped root. The plant has two types of leaves; lower down on the plant they are bright green, and oval-shaped with toothed edges. The upper leaves are smaller, elongated, and divided into three segments. The plant bears tiny white flowers in dense umbels three inches across.

Home-grown anise seeds are much more potent than store-bought, making anise well worth cultivating. The versatile herb grows readily from seed and prefers a moderately rich, well-drained alkaline loam, with a sunny and sheltered exposure. Sow the seeds outside where they're to be grown in late spring (anise doesn't transplant well), and thin to eight inches apart when plants are a few inches high. It can be grown indoors successfully, too.

The plants flower six weeks after sowing. Harvest the lower leaves as needed and collect the flowers as they open. To harvest the seeds, cut the plant at ground level when it begins to turn gray-green at the tips. Dry the seeds by hanging the plant upside down, tying a paper bag over the seed heads to catch the seeds as they fall. Seeds to be sown next year should be kept in a cool, dark place.

For cooking, beauty and health, grow anise and you'll be growing a bit of history.

Anise Cookies

These warm, licorice-falvored treats are always a hit!

1/4 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons whole anise seeds
Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 400° and lightly spray two cookie sheets. In a medium bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla and mix thoroughly.

2. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and anise seeds. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet. Using a teaspoon, drop dough onto prepared cookie sheets and bake for 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden brown.

Makes 36 cookies.

L/O PER COOKIE: 50 CAL (32% from fat), 1g PROT, 2g FAT, 8g CARB, 41mg SOD, 15mg CHOL, .7g FIBER.

Fruit and Flower Salad

Dress up a summer fruit salad with delicate white anise flowers.

1 cantaloupe, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
1 cup blackberries
1 tablespoon chopped anise leaves
Juice of 1 small orange
2 tablespoons anise flowers

In a shallow serving bowl, combine fruit, anise leaves, and orange juice. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours. Scatter flowers over salad before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

V PER SERVING: 78 CAL (9% from fat), 2g PROT, 1g FAT, 18g CARB, 12mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 3g FIBER.

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