I was recently dusting some of this gorgeous, fragrant pollen over scallops to finish off a dish when I thought about the fact that this (slightly sexy) ingredient isn’t as popular as it used to be. For a time, you couldn’t open up a menu in NYC without seeing a sprinkle of fennel pollen somewhere, and now….not so much. Whether it’s trendy or not, fennel pollen creates a luxurious and fragrant layer to a dish, with that signature anise-like aroma and a delicacy that is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.
Many people are pretty familiar with fennel seeds and their culinary use, and I’ve actually touched on Lucknow fennel here, my favorite and what I think is the most intense of the bunch. But the pollen is another thing altogether. It is just that, harvested from the yellow flowers of wild fennel, which grows mainly in Italy (thus its use in Tuscan cooking) as well as in California, where it was apparently planted by Italian immigrants.
Some claim that the flavor of the pollen is way more powerful than the seeds, and, if you’re lucky enough to live in Cali and harvest it fresh, that could be true. What I pick up at the spice store, however, has a gentler flavor, more reminiscent of the Lucknowi fennel seeds in its sweetness but with less of a sharp bite.
Now, this isn’t the cheapest spice out there, but a little of it makes a big impact. A sweet, tiny bowl of it stays perennially on my cheese board for entertaining – it complements soft cow and goat milk cheeses beautifully. I am guilty of sprinkling a bit on top of buttered popcorn, throwing it into my scrambled eggs, and mixing it with olive oil for a bread dip. Although it works really well with pork in a spice rub, I prefer its delicacy paired with fish and seafood where it can really stand out. But what I’m really itching to do now is bake with it. I may throw these into some shortbread or, better, madeleines this weekend….