Spices of Life. Check out her video tip on using star anise, and then see these delicious recipes - there's an entire Valentine's Day menu below - hot, sweet, spicy... A braised pork like this is a perfect dish for a big meal like Valentine's; you can put it in the oven and then fuss over more pressing details, like candles and well-set table. The pears can also be made ahead - this is one of our very favorite sweet, yet not too heavy, desserts. Fill the centers of the pears with a little sweetened whipped mascarpone for an even richer treat. Fragrant Cinnamon Pork with Sweet Potatoes Six to Eight Servings 1/2 pound boneless butt or shoulder, trimmed of excess fat or gristle 2 teaspoons olive or canola oil Seasonings: 3 stalks scallion, ends trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch sections, and smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver or knife 3 garlic cloves, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver, and sliced thin 3 slices fresh ginger, about the size of a quarter, smashed lightly with the flat side of a cleaver or knife 1/2 teaspoon hot chili paste 1 stick cinnamon 1/2 whole star anise, smashed or 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds Braising Mixture: 4 cups water 1/3 cup soy sauce ¼ rice wine or sake 2 tablespoons sugar 3 sweet potatoes or yams, about 1 1/2 pounds, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 -inch cubes 2 tablespoons minced scallions for garnish 1. Cut the pork into 1 1/2-inch cubes. 2. Heat the oil until very hot in a 4-quart casserole or a Dutch oven. Add half the pork pieces. Sear the outside of half the pork over high heat until brown, turning once. Remove and sear the remaining meat. Set aside. 3. Reheat the pan and oil, add the Seasonings. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds, then add the Braising Mixture. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 20 minutes. Add the pork, bring the liquid to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Let simmer covered for 35 to 40 minutes. Add the sweet potatoes, stir, cover, and continue cooking for about 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Serve the pork and potatoes, atop a bed of stir-fried bok choy with some of the braising mixture spooned on top and accompanied by steamed rice. (c) Copyright Nina Simonds 2008 Spiced Pears in Red Wine Six Servings Poaching Mixture: 1 bottle red wine ( French or American Merlot) 6 cups water 1 1/2 cups sugar peel of 1 orange 2 sticks cinnamon 2 stars anise* 6 slightly under-ripe Bosc pears 2 lemons, cut in half 2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger, for garnish (optional) 1. Mix the ingredients of the Poaching Mixture in a large, non-aluminum pot. Bring to boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. 2. Peel the pears, leaving the stem on. Rub the surface with the cut lemons to prevent them from turning brown. Lower the pears into the poaching liquid and squeeze the juice from the lemons into the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil again, then reduce the heat to low, and simmer uncovered until pears are tender, about 40 to minutes. Test by piercing the pears with a knife. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a bowl. 3. Strain out the seasonings (orange peel, cinnamon sticks, and star anise) and discard. Pour 3 cups of the cooking liquid into a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 30 minutes, until the sauce is reduced. Pour the syrup over the pears. Serve warm or chilled for at least 3 hours with a little syrup. Sprinkle the top with the candied ginger. The pears can be poached 1 day ahead and refrigerated. (c) Copyright Nina Simonds 2008. Thank you Nina!