You might not have thought of it as “magic” the last time you got anthers on your pant leg as you walked by a blooming plant. In fact, it’s likely that you don’t even know what an anther is. But some chefs swear that once you have tasted wild fennel pollen used as a rub on your favorite lamb or beef dish, you will be a victim of the magic! All spices used in cooking originate from plants: flowers, fruits, seeds, barks, leaves, and roots. The anther is the pollen producing part of the plant. In a flower, you recognize it as that can’t-stay-still-for-a-second jiggling center of a bloom. The pollen the anther produces in some plants can indeed stick to your clothing and, in some cases, be the minute particles in the air that make you miserable during allergy season. But in its prepared form, the pollen of some plants, like wild fennel and dill, can also become what culinary artists have called “a secret ingredient.” Dill and fennel are from the same plant family and look almost exactly alike. The two spices, however, can bring very different tastes to your favorite dishes. Dill pollen, which is a more potent form of the spice some cooks already use, is a great complement for fish, particularly salmon, as well as eggs, potatoes, vegetables or sauces. Fennel pollen is more subtle. It has been said to “calmly retreat to the background” and its flavor changes depending on the ingredients it’s interacting with. Long used in the cooking recipes of Northern Italy, wild fennel pollen made its way into the American cooking scene in the last five to ten years. Like all pollen spices, wild fennel pollen is the most potent form of fennel and produces the maximum amount of flavor. Hand collected fennel pollen first became a favorite spice of chefs in California kitchens. Referring to it as “magic fairy dust,” it can be purchased at seasonal farmer’s markets and ordered online. Although it can also be used in salads and on roasted meats and fish, some parts of the world have long used fennel in a variety of other ways as well. In Italy, especially in the region of Tuscany, fennel pollen is used as a flavoring in both bread and pesto. In addition to adding flavor, fennel pollen also provides health benefits. The fennel bulb has a high amount of Vitamin C, which is needed for proper functioning of the immune system. In addition, the bulb is rich is fiber, which helps reduce cholesterol levels. If your favorite dishes are starting to seem boring and mundane, maybe it’s time you started experimenting with some “magic fairy dust” to add new tastes to your family meals.
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