Culinary Fairy Dust
Seasoned chefs will often say that there's no such thing as a shortcut in cooking. Mention fennel pollen, the potent granules harvested from the buds of flowering fennel plants, and they may make an exception.
Long a part of the culinary tradition in Northern Italy, fennel pollen is capable of amping up flavor in an instant. After hitting the American market as a digestive aid, the green-gold powder worked its way into professional kitchens by the mid-1990s, and has gained a growing following. Its flavor combines the licorice zing of fresh fennel seed and anise with citrus and honey notes, but here's where the real magic comes in: Fennel pollen acts not just as a flavoring agent but as a flavor booster, instantly beefing up a dish's umami—that deep savoriness and intensity that chefs struggle mightily to develop.
Fresh pollen pops up in California farmers' markets from March through May and Northeastern ones in summer; high-quality dried versions are sold year-round by retailers including Zingerman's ( zingermans.com ), Kalustyan's ( kalustyans.com ) and Pollen Ranch ( pollenranch.com ). We asked three chefs for easy ways to cook with the stuff.
AS A RUB FOR PORK, POULTRY OR SALMON
Pork and fennel pollen is a classic Italian pairing, one that Boston chef Barbara Lynch discovered for herself in the porchetta sandwiches she ate during her first stint cooking in Northern Italy. Ms. Lynch has used fennel pollen as the principal aromatic in a rub for pork ever since, either mixed with kosher salt or in concert with complementary spices such as ground celery seed or cumin.
Try rubbing this spice onto a pork shoulder before cooking it until fork-tender. It also makes a wonderful flavor enhancer when dusted onto pork ribs, salmon, skin-on turkey or chicken breasts.
IN PASTAS AND RISOTTOS
Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello loves the way that fennel pollen marries with ingredients like veal, mushrooms, spring vegetables and citrus in pastas and risottos. To make a veal Bolognese sauce that really sings, dust the meat with a teaspoon of fennel pollen before browning it on the stovetop.
You can also cook asparagus, leeks and baby carrots in olive oil with a teaspoon of fennel pollen for a pasta or risotto primavera with unusual depth of flavor. At his restaurant Bottega, Mr. Chiarello mixes fennel pollen with ricotta, a dash of crème fraîche and lemon zest for a ravioli filling. To give homemade pasta an added kick, mix a teaspoon or two of the pollen right into your dough.
IN COOKIES, BREADS AND CRUMBLES
To Jonathan Waxman, chef and owner of Barbuto in New York, fennel pollen has the rare power to transform sweets from ordinary to exceptional. He especially loves its impact on recipes containing oatmeal, cinnamon, orange, lemon and chocolate.
Mr. Waxman makes oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with a tablespoon of fennel pollen mixed into the dough. The chef also sprinkles cinnamon buns with a hit of fennel pollen before they enter the oven, and mixes it into a streusel that he puts on everything from blueberry crisp to coffee cake.
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