By SCMG Gaius Robinson
Harvest in the afternoon when the pollen is warm and dry. Look for the bright yellow flowers that seem ‘poufy’ with pollen. Simply cut off the heads of several flowers and shake, tap and wiggle the pollen off into a container. The first shakes provide bright yellow pollen. Then let the heads dry, and a few days latter rub the tiny florets between your fingers to loosen the dried pollen. This also produces quite a few stems, which you can remove with tweezers or your fingers. Store the pollen in an air-tight container. If you purchase fennel pollen from a spice or herb store it will cost anywhere from $20 or more per ounce! Harvesting your own takes a bit of time, however, the reward is a spice which imparts a delicate licorice flavor to meats and fish or vegetables.
One easy recipe is to sprinkle the pollen generously on all side of a pork tenderloin. Salt and pepper, then let the meat rest for 30 to 40 minutes at room temperature. Spray or brush lightly with olive oil and place on a hot grill. Turn every 4 minutes until done to your liking. Remove meat to a platter, cover loosely with foil, let rest 5 minutes and then slice and serve. The aroma when you remove the foil is heady and delicious! A wonderful accompaniment are the green beans that are in season right now, so steam them, sprinkle with fennel pollen and add a generous dab of butter. Serve to clamoring fans!
While you are harvesting the pollen, clip 4 or 5 extra blossoms and let dry 3 or 4 days. (If you are in hurry, put them in your car in a paper bag, close all the windows and leave your car in the sun for several hours. Presto: dried fennel!) Either way, place the dried fennel blossoms in a 4 to 6 oz jar, cover with olive oil, screw on the top, and leave on your counter for 3 to 7 days. The oil will then be nicely scented with fennel. Use this oil to brush on vegetables such as sliced zucchini, then sprinkle with fennel pollen and salt. This is fabulous grilled on the barbeque, or you can simply sauté in a hot skillet. The oil is also great to use in homemade salad dressing. Use a light vinegar such as white balsamic, or use fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar. You can add a little fennel pollen for an extra surge of fennel goodness.
Fresh fennel fronds (say that 5 times fast!) make a beautiful addition to a salad. Simply clip off the ends of a small frond into tiny ½ inch pieces (don’t use the stem, just the feathery part). The fresh leaves taste wonderful and look lacey in your salad. They can also be added to water that you are using to cook beans or rice.
Fennel seeds will rapidly form on flower heads that remain on the plant for a few weeks – look for mature flowers when harvesting, which should be done in the afternoon, when it is warm. Use about ¼ tsp. to 2 cups of water to make tea. Fennel seeds also freshen your breath and aid in digestion if you just chew a few seeds after a meal. If you make your own sausage, they give the pork a lovely flavor. Or sprinkle seeds on a homemade pizza or use in spaghetti sauce.
The wild fennel that brightens our Sonoma roads this time of year, while great for pollen, is not tasty as a root vegetable. You must have Florence fennel to grow your own fennel bulbs. You can harvest fennel bulbs once the plant is mature, usually in the spring. Just slice through the root just below the bulb with a sharp knife. If the bulb has grown larger than 3 inches in diameter, it will be tough.
Wash the bulb, and serve either thinly sliced in salads, or cooked with other root vegetables. Roasted fennel is a lovely side dish to pork or turkey. Fennel braised with a bit of chicken stock, butter and showered with fresh Parmesan at the last is wonderful. Freshly harvested bulbs may be stored up to a week in a plastic bag in the refrigerator but for best flavor use immediately. However you grow or harvest this culinary asset, it is sure to expand your taste buds in an extraordinary way.