The Spice is Right #2 – Sweet or Savory: Tomato-Fennel-Anise Soup

I loved the black jellybeans and the white spice drops as a kid. And Good n’ Plenty.

When we moved to Michigan, I discovered licorice flavored herb-menthol Lakerol (good luck with the navigation on that, unless you speak Swedish) in the green box. There are a case of them in my pantry, bought from the Svensk Butik in nearby Kingsburg.

It’s always dicey when people ask you if you have gum or mints.

“No, but I have Lakerol.”

“What are those?”

“Licorice-herb drops. They’re strong, though.”

“Okay.” (Beat) Ptoowie. “Yuck.”

How can they spit out my precious Lakerol? Why are anise and licorice flavors so often reviled? I don’t understand it.

When Barbara announced this second challenge, I thought about it for a long time, considering the sesame cookies my mother made, wondering if I could develop a tolerance for caraway if enough sugar was involved, or whether there was anything unexpected that could be done with fenugreek.

In the end, I came to this soup mostly because I feel anise flavors are often unfairly maligned, and like a personal ambassador for them. I’ve heard plenty of people over the years say they hate licorice, and the flavor seems to be disliked in sweet foods by many and avoided in savory foods by even more, perhaps.

The problem, I think, is partly that those who dislike anise flavors see them as all alike. Fennel is that plant that tastes like licorice, and licorice flavors are only for candy.

Except it doesn’t, and they’re not. Anise flavors come in a great range of diversity and intensity. The family includes everything from subtle, herbaceous French tarragon and bracing fresh fennel to the green bite of fennel seeds, the warm scent of ground aniseed and the spicy-hot complexity of star anise.

I love the anise- and cinnamon-flavored tomato sauces I’ve learned to make in Indian cooking, so I thought I’d take that anise-tomato pairing and carry it a little further, by using multiple anise-flavored foods.

This was a one-off, this soup, invented one afternoon and not refined to perfection – if I make it again (which I expect I will) I’ll probably up the tomato content and add a couple carrots to deepen the flavor. If I was presenting this at a dinner party, I might strain it. It would also be wonderful with cream added, but I wanted to keep this vegan. Hot soup is tolerable in Fresno in May, but hot cream soup starts to push it a bit.

(I’ve also noted my farmers’ market sources here – this breaks the Eat Local Challenge a bit, but I had planned to do it ahead of time.)

oil for the pan
2 green onions, finely chopped (K.M.K. Farms, Kingsburg)
5 bulbs fennel, finely chopped (Il Giardino Organico, Fresno)
1 14 oz. can Muir Glen chopped tomatoes (oh well)
2 T. tomato paste (oh well again)
1 T. fresh ginger, minced
1 t. aniseed
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
zest of one lemon (Il Giardino Organico again)
1/2 T. fennel seed
few leaves French tarragon, minced

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan until hot but not smoking. Sauté the onion until beginning to color in places, then add the fennel and cook a few minutes longer, until the fennel is slightly wilted. Turn the lot into a saucepan. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, ginger, aniseed, cayenne pepper, enough water to cover, and salt and pepper to taste. Place over medium heat initially, then reduce to a simmer when necessary. Cook until the fennel is tender.

Turn the soup into a blender or food processor and puree. Return to the pan and heat if necessary; serve hot. Toss lemon zest, fennel seed, and French tarragon together and top each bowl with a spoonful.

Makes four servings.

2 thoughts on “The Spice is Right #2 – Sweet or Savory: Tomato-Fennel-Anise Soup

  1. Thanks, Hadar, that’s so kind of you! You may have already used the recipe, but if you haven’t, consider throwing in a carrot or two – I think it would round it out nicely.

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