When I was a kid, my junk food of choice, purchased at Pat’s Food Center across the street from my house, or at the park store in the Missaukee County trailer park, was Twinkies or Mars Bar or Three Musketeers bar (Pat’s) or wax lips or wax coke bottle with that syrupy pseudo coca cola inside or colored-sugar-in-a-straw (county store). I had friends who bought Good and Plenty, black or red licorice. Not me. Ever.
When I got married none of that changed. Well, one thing did. I no longer bought candy bars and wax snacks at Pat’s or the county store. But licorice of any kind was definitely still a no-go.
But introduced to Italian cuisine, I began to develop a taste for foods whose active ingredient was glycyrrhiza glabra–the chemical element lending its flavor to licorice and Nyquil. There was no licorice at my in-laws’ dinner table, they did not take a nip of Nyguil for a digestivo. Some mornings when I met my father-in-law at the house before our drive to the construction site, he handed me a cup of instant coffee (instant, a convenience and a profanation), adding a few drops of Arrow Anisette. “Solo per odore,” he would say with a smile. “Just for the fragrance.” I knew Arrow was synonymous with rot-gut. He may have known too. If he did, he didn’t care. And at 6:15 a.m., somehow that fragrantized coffee hit the spot.
At their table, along with anisette I learned to correct my coffee with mistrà, or sip it after a meal. Mistrà is the anise-flavored San Marino moonshine he brought back from there in unmarked liter-and-a-half bottles and that a few San Marino guys with stills over in Sterling Heights produced back here. Unlike Sambuca, the syrupy, sickly sweet commercial liqueur, which I cannot drink, mistrà is thin, refined to the point of being gasoline-like, and good in or beside a cup of espresso.
In foods, too, I would detect that unmistakable presence–glycyrrhiza glabra. Over time I more than made my peace with it. In foods I sought it out.
Most subtle and appealing among these foods: fennel. These days I find fennel bulbs in the vegetable section of every store where I shop. Chopped and eaten raw, it’s the most refreshing thing ever. At holiday feasts we lay it out to be enjoyed both before and during the meal. Lately I’ve been stewing it. It’s fast (cooking time 30 minutes) and aromatic and delicious.
Chop it, rinse it. In a flat pan gently sauté a couple cloves of garlic. Toss the chopped fennel in the sautè and add fresh rosemary. Here’s some amazing food chemistry–the commingling of glycyrrhiza glabra in the fennel with all the aromatic phenols in rosemary. Cover the pan and let it cook for ten minutes. Then uncover the pan and let your nose hover in the general vicinity. Prepare to be transported.
On low heat, the water from the rinsed fennel will probably be enough to get through 25-30 minutes of cooking. You’ll move the fennel, occasionally, lovingly, and add a few tablespoons of water if the saute starts to stick.
Good served warm. Or set it aside and bring it to the table at room temperature. Also good the next day–if you can keep from eating it all.