Q: Is there a difference between anise and fennel?
A: Fennel and anise have similar, licorice-like flavors, but the form is different.
Florence fennel, the type you usually see in markets, is a root vegetable with a feathery frond. The bulbous root can be sliced and cooked like a vegetable, while the frond can be minced and used the way you’d use a fresh herb. The flavor is similar to anise, but much milder, sweeter and more delicate. Fennel seed, usually dried and used to flavor sausage, comes from a related plant called common fennel.
Anise is classified as a spice. You rarely encounter the plant, just the seed, sometimes called aniseed. It’s used to flavor a lot of things, such as sweets, and particularly beverages common in Mediterranean countries, like pastis (France), anisette (Italy) and ouzo (Greece).
You’re most likely to find dried anise in the spice section of a well-stocked supermarket, particularly in areas of the country where there are large populations of people of Italian descent. Dried fennel seed should be easy to find in supermarket spice sections.
Q: Meyer lemons have such a short season. Can you freeze the juice and the zest?
A: It does seem cruel that lemons are in season in winter when lemon flavors taste so good in summer. But you can stretch the season with your freezer.
Freezing any lemon or lime juice is easy. The most convenient way is in ice cube trays, so you can freeze 1 to 2 tablespoons of juice at a time. The water may separate and rise to the top, so a small amount lets you thaw it and stir it back together before using. After freezing, pop out the cubes and put them in a resealable freezer bag.
The rind will lose some of the flavor of volatile oils, but not all of it. You can grate it on wax paper, then fold it up and freeze it, or you can put it in ice cube trays and cover with a little water.
Even better: Add grated zest to the ice cube trays when you freeze the juice. You'll get even more flavor that way.
Q: Is cheesecake a cake or a pie?
A: Since it’s round and has layers (custard and base), some say cake; others cite the filling and bottom crust and say it’s pie.
Some prefer the definition of tart, which The Oxford Companion to Food describes as “a flat, baked item consisting of a base of pastry … with a sweet or savory topping not covered with a pastry lid.”
However, I like the other most common answer: It’s a custard. It’s usually made from a batter of cream cheese or ricotta and eggs and baked in a water bath like pudding or flan.
Q: How can I tell if eggs are bad? I find that the date on the carton is really conservative, but I’d like a way to know for sure when they go off.
A: The old technique is to put an egg in cold water in a bowl, and if it sinks, it’s good, if it sinks but stands on its point, it’s still good but should be used soon, and if it floats, it’s bad. Eggs gain air as they age.
Q: I like adding chickpeas to my salads during the week, but if I either cook a batch or open a can at the beginning of the week, they can get a little slimy by the end. I keep them in a sealed bag in the fridge. Is there a way around this?
A: If they’re canned, store them covered in water. If they’re home-cooked, leave them in their cooking liquid.
Q: I got some on-sale vanilla beans and am trying to make vanilla sugar. I split the pod and buried it in a pretty airtight jar of sugar. How long do I have to wait?
A: It should scent the sugar within a week or so, I’d think. Your nose will know.