No? Well, neither had I. But recently, chefs in-the-know have been experimenting with it, and it has diners wondering just what that elusive yet distinctive flavor could be. Is it curry?? ... anise?? ... saffron?? Is it in fact all three, or something entirely different?
I'm actually quite familiar with fennel: the vegetable and the herb. It does have an anise-like quality. Sliced fennel bulb, or finocchio -- also known as "Florence fennel" -- is a beloved vegetable in Italy and is often found in salads, either cooked or as a side dish. Fennel seed is also popular in some tomato sauce recipes, and you can even chew fennel seed to freshen your breath.
But fennel pollen is a whole new, dare I say, invention? The Pollen Ranch in Lemon Cove, California (already sounds delicious) has been the leading promoter of herb pollens like fennel and dill, and the trend has really caught on in culinary circles.
Fennel pollen is collected just after the fennel plant has come into flower. The drying process is what makes this spice so expensive ($20 an ounce!). Once dried, the pollen can be packaged and used as is, or it can be blended with other ingredients.
I was intrigued and decided to try some.
The pretty little golden tin arrived in the mail from Daily Grommet. I opened it, smelled it and, of course, had to taste it.
What does it taste like? The dominant note is a very light licorice flavor (anise), but there were other mysterious back notes: crushed toasted pecans, lemon peel, chervil flakes, fleur de sel, cumin, according to the ingredients on the tin. I knew a pinch of this would perk up my summer cooking and grilling.
Pork loin brushed with olive oil and rolled in fennel pollen
In Italy, fennel pollen is used most frequently with pork dishes. I rolled a pork loin in olive oil and some of the fennel pollen to marinate for several hours. We grilled the loin over hot coals for about 20 minutes -- it smelled divine -- sliced it and served it. Delicious. I think the fennel pollen even made the pork more juicy and tender.
What next? It's often used in the preparation of sausages. And famous chef Mario Batali rolls goat cheese logs in the fennel pollen as an appetizer.
Bu since I live near the ocean on Cape Cod, I was searching for a more regional use. Stuffed clams came to mind. Just as the baked stuffed clams come out of the oven, I sprinkled each with a dusting of the fennel pollen and served.
“What is that flavor?” a guest asked.
Ah, the kitchen secret might have to be revealed.
This flavor enhancer can be sweet or savory, so it would work with any favorite fish dish or a risotto ... the “gold dust” of the kitchen gods.
Try it and see.
I decided right then that a tin of fennel pollen will be my go-to gift for friends, especially for the cook who has everything and is on the lookout for the latest new foodie vibe.
Rita's Baked Stuffed Clams
1 cup minced clams, drained but save some of the liquid
½ minced onion, 1 small clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. butter
½ cup fine breadcrumbs like Panko
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
fennel pollen, about 1 tsp.
Saute the onion and garlic in butter. Add in the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, clams, lemon juice, parsley and 1 Tbsp. reserved clam juice. Off heat stuff the clam shells or ramekins with the clams/stuffing. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. To serve: sprinkle with a dash of fennel pollen and a wedge of lime.