It's all about harmony and yin-yang. And while that sounds tritely New Age, it really is the key to Chinese cuisine.
Because as with so much of Asian cooking, the blend of seasonings known as five-spice powder is intended to trigger a sense of balance in the mouth and nose. How? A careful selection of spices that simultaneously hit notes of warm and cool, sweet and bitter, savory and searing.
And that's what you get with five-spice powder, a mix of fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. Like spice blends around the world, the proportions of those ingredients vary by region in China, but some variant of it is used throughout the country.
That robust profile of flavors makes it a natural for roasted and grilled meats. In fact, some argue five-spice powder was the original dry barbecue rub. Five-spice especially likes fatty meat, and often is used with duck (and is combined with soy sauce to give Peking duck it characteristic flavor and color).
Likewise, the sweet-and-spicy notes play well with pork (fried, braised and otherwise), and even is sprinkled on fried peanuts as a snack. But that diversity of flavor also makes this a versatile seasoning. It is equally at home on roasted vegetables and tofu dishes.
So what should you do with it?
n Um, best steak rub ever? Rub it on steak tips, then refrigerate them for a day or so. Toss them on the grill and pair with beer.
n Blend it with kosher salt, then sprinkle it on hot buttered popcorn. Even better — use ghee instead of butter.
n Substitute it for the seasonings in your favorite meat-based chili.
n Blend five-spice powder with salt, then rub the mixture both under and over the skin of a whole chicken for roasting.
n Speaking of chicken, mix five-spice powder into the batter of fried (or even baked "fried") chicken.
n Blend five-spice powder with olive oil, then toss shrimp in it for grilling.
For the following recipe, the beef should be rubbed with the spice blend at least an hour before cooking. If you want to get a jump on things (and really let the flavors sink in), do it up to two days in advance, then loosely cover and refrigerate.
Five-Spice Roast Beef Tenderloin
2 T. olive oil
1 T. five-spice powder
1 T. kosher salt
1/2 T. ground black pepper
Two 2-lb. beef tenderloins
2 large yellow onions, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 c. beef stock
1 c. red wine
1 T. Wondra instant flour
In a small bowl, mix together the oil, five-spice powder, salt and pepper.
Use paper towels to pat dry the tenderloins, then rub them all over with the spice blend. Set on a plate, cover loosely with plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 2 days.
An hour before you are ready to roast, remove the tenderloins from the refrigerator and let warm slightly at room temperature.
Heat the oven to 375.
Lightly coat a roasting pan with cooking spray. Scatter the onions, carrots and garlic in the pan, then set a roasting rack above them. Set the tenderloins on the rack and roast for about 40 minutes, or until the beef reaches 120 for rare. Remove the rack from the pan, cover the meat with foil, then set aside to rest for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, set the roasting pan over medium-high heat on the stovetop (you may need to use two burners).
Add the stock and wine and bring to simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan. When the liquid has reduced by about half, strain it and discard the solids. Return it to the pan and sprinkle in the Wondra. Heat until thickened.
Slice the beef and serve with the pan sauce. Makes 8 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 340 calories; 110 calories from fat (30 percent of total calories); 12 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 120 mg cholesterol; 9 g carbohydrate; 46 g protein; 1 g fiber; 870 mg sodium.