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Spice It Up!

If you're bored with many of your old stand-by recipes, we're going to show you how to spice up your kitchen repertoire - literally!

John Willoughby, executive editor of Gourmet magazine, introduces three unusual spices -- ones that you may not have heard of or used before -- and shares recipes for adding them to some favorite dishes.

Star Anise:
As its name suggests, star anise looks like a star. It's actually the fruit from an ornamental tree. It's one of the spices in Chinese Five-Spice Powder, and is quite popular in Vietnam and Southern China, where it's used in a lot of hearty meat dishes.

The spice has a mild licorice flavor, like anise, but it's a bit sweeter, a bit earthier. While you may not be familiar with the spice, you'll likely to recognize it as a familiar flavor in a Chinese or East Asian cooking.

Star anise is sold whole or ground, but Willoughby says that the whole spice has a lot more flavor, and is nice to look at.

The citrus salad recipe listed below is delicious and showcases its flavor.

Other uses: add to any stew or dish that you're braising (slow cooking in the oven).

This is one of Willoughby favorite spices, and it's the third most-expensive spice behind saffron and real vanilla. It's frequently used in Indian food and in Scandanavian sweets.

Cardamom, like cinnamon, is considered a warm spice. You can buy it ground or as whole spice pods.

It's very aromatic and adds an indefinable sweetness to dishes. The recipe below for cardamom sour cream waffles are a great example of how the spice adds a sweet exotic touch to dishes.

Other uses: add to any quick bread or pastry, substitute for cinnamon in spice rubs or add to rice.

Juniper Berries:
This is probably the most unusual of the three spices and
one that few people think about cooking with. Juniper berries are not actually berries, although they look like a small berry; they are cones (like pinecones) and come from pine trees.

Juniper berries taste piney, but sweet. They are the predominant flavor in gin. Juniper has a fresh, almost citrus flavor, so it helps cut through the richness of meats like short ribs or cream like in the potato gratin recipe below.

Other uses: add to pork or beef stews or add to spice rubs

The three spices add very definite flavors to dishes. Unlike a spice such as rosemary, you may not be able to put your finger on what exactly you're tasting.

Citrus Salad with Star Anise
Gourmet, March 2000
Makes 4 servings

1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
4 whole star anise or 1 teaspoon anise seeds
3 assorted grapefruits such as white, pink, and ruby
2 navel oranges

1. Simmer water with sugar and anise in a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, 1 minute. Cool slightly.

2. Cut peel and white pith from grapefruits and oranges with a sharp knife. Working over a bowl, cut grapefruit and orange sections free from membranes. Pour off juice released during cutting from bowl and reserve.

3. Stir syrup into fruit and chill, covered, 1 hour. Stir in reserved juice to taste.

Cook's note: Salad can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered.

French Red Onion Soup
Gourmet, Sept. 2008
Serves 4 (first course or light main course)
- Active time: 20 minutes
- Start-to-finish: 45 minutes

In this redesigned French bistro classic, softened red onions join salty Manchego, and star anise gives the peppery broth a subtle undercurrent of sweetness.

2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 whole star anise
6 black peppercorns
2 lbs. red onions, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry red wine
4 (1-inch thick) slices of baguette
2 cups coarsely grated Manchego or Gruyère (6 to 7 oz)

1. Bring broth, water, spices, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil. Remove from heat and let steep 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook onions in oil with 1/4 teaspoon salt in a heavy medium pot over medium heat, covered, stirring occasionally, until deep golden, about 15 minutes. Add wine and boil, uncovered, until reduced to 2 tablespoon, about 1 minute. Strain broth through a sieve into onion mixture and briskly simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes. Season with salt.

3. Preheat broiler.

4. Ladle soup into 4 ovenproof bowls set in a 4-sided sheet pan. Place baguette slices on top and sprinkle each with 1/2 cup cheese. Broil about 6 inches from heat until cheese is melted and bubbling, about 2 minutes.