The difference between a good dish and a talk-about-it-years-later dish? Some say it's all in the spices. Currently, fennel pollen is having its time in the sun, and we're singing the praises of this so-called "spice of angels." Here's what you need to know.
What Is Fennel Pollen?
Fennel pollen is an elegantly complex powerhouse that originates from the yellow flower blossoms of the fennel bulb, says Olivia Roszkowski, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. Most fennel pollen is foraged from wild fennel and thus is slow and difficult to harvest, you can expect to pay upwards of $20 for a few ounces of this epicurean fairy dust.
"It carries a complex flavor complete with notes of citrus, saffron, and anise, which often work to complement and not overpower a dish," says Roszkowski, adding that fennel pollen is sweeter and more delicate in taste than fennel seeds, which are traditionally known for a toasted, earthy, anise flavor. Storage-wise, keep fennel pollen in a cool, dry location in a sealed container, she says, noting that you'll want to buy it in small containers and replenish it often for optimal freshness.
The potent spice is incredibly versatile. "Fennel pollen can be incorporated into almost any dish," says Aysegul Sanford, blogger and owner of the recipe site Foolproof Living, elaborating that its flavor is much more powerful than that of fennel seeds (a little goes a long way). "Fennel pollen goes great with roasted chicken and vegetables. It can tie the dish together by offering an earthy undertone with hints of sweetness," she says of its anise and citrus notes.
"It's an easy spice to use as a garnish because it doesn't benefit from toasting or grinding," adds Roszkowski. "It enhances both savory and sweet creations without overpowering. Fennel pollen is similar in application to sumac—which also comes from a flower, making it delicate enough to use as a topping versus most other spices that need a little more integration in a dish."
How to Use It
Here are Roszkowski's favorite ways to use the fennel pollen:
Flatbread Dough: "Add it directly to flatbread dough along with lemon oil. This combination adds a refreshing freshness that livens the flatbread that can be then grilled, pan-seared, or baked in the oven," she says. "The speckles of the fennel pollen that appear in the dough are a great way to celebrate and showcase this culinary revelation."
Salad Dressing: The chef-instructor suggests adding fennel pollen to your next batch of salad dressing instead of using black pepper. "The result is lighter, more floral and perfect for the warmer months," she says. "Fennel pollen pairs beautifully with the rich notes of an unrefined olive oil, white wine vinegar, sea salt, and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Drizzle on baby lettuces or use as a marinade for cast iron-seared seasonal vegetables like asparagus."
Granola, Fruit, and Yogurt Parfait: Yep, fennel pollen is an excellent addition to sweet dishes, too. "Mix up your breakfast of a granola, fruit, and yogurt parfait with a sprinkle of fennel pollen," she says, highlighting that the sweetness of the fruit and the tang from the yogurt will be even more pronounced with the introduction of this spice. "If you are feeling ambitious you can even add it to your next batch of granola."
Infused Sweetener: "Add a pinch of fennel pollen to honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar," she says. Some ways to use the infused sweetener are; a drizzle in tea, rimming a cocktail, or a dollop it atop pancakes, waffles, or vanilla ice cream.
A Little Goes a Long Way
It's worth stressing that you don't need a lot of fennel pollen to alter the flavor profile of a dish. As a starting point for newcomers aboard the fennel pollen train, try sprinkling it as a topping on savory dishes such as soups, croutons, popcorn, or avocado toast until you become familiar with its taste and can actually discern if you enjoy using it in your kitchen, suggests Roszkowski. "Also, because fennel pollen carries more delicate nuances than more powerful spices, it's best to showcase it in situations where its flavor and aromas will not get lost in the mix."
Maybe it's time for a scoop of vanilla ice cream with some fennel pollen-infused maple syrup?