Do humans have a gene for loving or loathing the flavor of licorice, or was our passionate response to it acquired in childhood when we sucked those cloying candy ropes that left us with sticky fingers and black tongues? Whatever the explanation, during the decade when I owned a store that sold spices, some of the most emphatic comments I heard concerned people’s feelings about licorice. Few were neutral.
Licorice flavor shows up in herbs and spices from several different plant families (see “Licorice Shtick,” page 34). Used with a light hand, any of them will lend spectacular, yet illusive, sweet notes to dishes across the culinary spectrum—from savory fish and béarnaise-sauced steak to salads and even sweet desserts. Three herbs—tarragon, chervil, and fennel—perform this role to perfection.
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Corkscrew Pasta with Fennel
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Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), an annual, lacy-leaved member of the carrot family, is the most temperamental of the licorice-flavored herbs to grow here in Arizona. It reseeds prolifically if conditions are right: moderate temperatures and partial shade when temperatures climb. In the hottest climates, grow it only in the coolest months.
Sow seeds directly in well-worked garden soil in early spring (late fall in hot climates). Keep the bed moist until seedlings are up, then water as needed but never let the soil dry out: chervil draws a fine line between droopy and dead. Harvest as needed, cutting the outer leaves first.
Licorice-flavored French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa), a deciduous perennial member of the daisy family, does not produce viable seed and must therefore be propagated from divisions or rooted cuttings, usually in late spring. Avoid the flavorless Russian tarragon (A. dracunculus), which can be grown from seed. Though more heat resistant than chervil, tarragon also likes a moderate climate. In the hottest regions of the United States, Mexican mint marigold (see “Licorice Shtick,” page 34) is a good substitute. It not only thrives but tastes virtually identical to French tarragon.
Boldest in growth and flavor is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), like chervil a member of the carrot family. A prolific reseeder, it grows like a weed except where summers are cool or short, readily reaching 6 feet in height. If given enough water and some afternoon shade in hot climates, it will at least straggle along until temperatures soar toward 100°F. After that, you can forget fennel for the season.
Like chervil, fennel grows best when seeded directly into moderately rich, well-worked soil. For a blaze of color, try the bronze-leaved cultivar ‘Purpureum’. To grow the fat bulbs of Florence fennel, look for seeds of F. vulgare var. azoricum.
Nibble fresh sprigs of this herbal trio and you’ll note a paradoxical combination of sweet and vegetal flavors followed by the anise flavor we usually call “licorice.” Further comparison will reveal that chervil and tarragon have a more complex taste than fennel as well as a slight pepperiness. Both make your mouth tingle while suffusing it with an aromatic sensation, much as fresh peppermint does. To my mind, tarragon has a hint of marshmallow flavor not found in either chervil or fennel. Wild or common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) has a strident, slightly bitter taste; that of the bulbous Florence fennel, or sweet fennel or finocchio (F. vulgare var. azoricum), is sweeter, and sweeter than tarragon and chervil as well.
Tarragon and chervil may be freely interchanged in cooking. When seasoning strong-flavored fish, game, or earthy vegetables that tend to mask subtle differences, you can choose whichever herb you like or whichever is available. Use care when substituting herbs in bland foods such as eggs and cheese. Although the result may be delicious, you’ll certainly detect the difference. Fruits and chocolate desserts demand the more complex flavors of tarragon or chervil.
All three herbs play dominant roles in European kitchens.The French grill salmon steaks over dried fennel twigs and flavor their classic fish stew, bouillabaisse, with fresh sprigs. Italian cooks pair fennel with sardines and tarragon with hare. In both countries, cooks serve cold braised fennel bulbs in a vinaigrette and toss steamed young vegetables with chervilor clip sprigs over a spring salad. Continental cooks often stuff wild mushrooms with a tarragon filling.
Few herbs make as strong a contribution to vinegars and sauces as these three. Tarragon vinegar is one of the most popular flavored vinegars, and what would béarnaise, ravigote, or remoulade sauces be without tarragon or chervil? These two herbs, along with chives and parsley, are also fundamental to classic French fines herbes mixtures. Imagine a swipe of tarragon butter on a hot roll or a mushroom omelet with chervil folded in. Picture soft goat cheese rolled in minced fennel or a pinch showered over cream of carrot soup. These herbs can easily transform a pleasing dish into an inspired creation.
Chervil and tarragon also add stunning notes to sweetened fruits, whether macerated in liqueur, mashed and frozen in sorbets or ice cream, or poached or cooked into preserves. They even enhance chocolate.
Freshness means everything with these herbs: none retains its character when dried. Because the flavors of tarragon and chervil dissipate rapidly when cooked, add them at the end of cooking.
Everyone loves a subtle, mysterious touch of licorice taste, but only some like its full-bore flavor. Start with the smallest suggested quantity of these herbs and add more, a pinch at a time, to taste.