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From the look of it, you might think star anise belongs in a potpourri bowl and not a soup bowl.

But you would be wrong. Star anise has a licorice-like aroma and an enticing warm, spicy-sweet flavor that enhances savory and sweet dishes - from Vietnamese pho and Chinese barbecue pork to poached pears and pineapple upside-down cake.

You've probably tasted it in Indian food or in a warm cup of mulled red wine. Star anise is a key ingredient in Italian sambuca and French pastis liqueurs. It is also one of the components in the famous Chinese Five-Spice powder (along with cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, and Szechuan pepper) and in the Indian spice blend garam masala. It is very similar in flavor to aniseed, but the two are unrelated.

Star anise is dried slices of the star anise fruit native to southern China, with anywhere from five to 10 points to the star - thus its name. The rust-colored spice can be used whole or ground. Use whole or broken pieces to add a sweet-licorice-peppery flavor to stews, soups, stocks, cocktails, jams and desserts. Be sure to remove it from the dish before serving.

As with all spices, I prefer grinding star anise as needed, since the pre-ground spice loses its flavor quickly. The powder can be used for flavoring dishes with duck, pork or poultry. Just remember to use the spice in moderation since it can be quite pungent. Whole or ground star anise is available in most supermarkets or online.

The dried whole star anise spice will last for a year if kept stored airtight in a cool, dark, dry space; while the ground spice will be fresh for about six months.

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COCONUT CHICKEN CURRY

This recipe is by Shelby Confer, Chef de Cuisine of Carysfort Kitchen at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla.

Israel is a country that's rich in wine history, yet its wines remain largely misunderstood and underappreciated. Vitkin Red Israeli Journey, 2016 ($25) has a particular affinity with the creamy, subtle spice flavors in this curry because of its soft tannins and blackberry, cranberry, and cassis finish.

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 cloves garlic, crushed

3 stalks lemongrass, thinly sliced

2-inch piece ginger root, peeled and roughly chopped

1 bunch scallions, roughly chopped

6 pods star anise

1 stick cinnamon

3 tablespoons red curry paste (available in supermarkets or Asian markets)

1/3 cup agave or honey

3 cans coconut milk (28oz each)

2 bunches basil

4 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless cut into large dice

1 tablespoon curry powder

1/2 tablespoon turmeric

2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a 6-quart Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the crushed garlic cloves, lemongrass, ginger root and scallions and saute until fragrant and beginning to brown (about 4 minutes)

Add the star anise pods and cinnamon stick to the ingredients in the Dutch oven and lightly toast to enhance the flavor.

Add the curry paste and agave and stir until all ingredients are thoroughly combined (about 2 minutes).

Pour in the coconut milk and bring to just a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced by half.

Take off the heat and add the bunches of basil and cover with a lid to steep for 20 minutes.

Pass through a fine mesh strainer and return to heat on medium.

In a mixing bowl, toss the chicken thighs with curry powder, turmeric, salt and pepper.

Add the seasoned chicken thighs to the curry broth and simmer until the chicken is fully cooked and broth thickens (about 15 minutes)

Serve over steamed rice and roasted vegetables like bell peppers, Cipollini onions and carrots.

Yield: Serves 4

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(Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-host of Food & Wine Talk on southfloridagourmet.com.)

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