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.
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.
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