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Fennel Reveals Another Aspect

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I adore fennel and cook with it often. I grind the seeds of wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) for olive oil-fennel bread and pastries. The fronds and tender shoots make an excellent pesto and can be formed into little patties that get sauteed in olive oil until golden brown. I slice up the bulb of Florence fennel (the kind most often sold in America) for salads and cook it along side a roasting chicken or braise it with fish. But until recently, I'd never tried fennel pollen -- the yellowish dust that drifts off the blossoms of the green feathery plant. If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it.

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I first encountered fennel pollen in the Tuscan village of Panzano-in-Chianti, where butcher Dario Cecchini harvests it from fennel growing wild in the region and uses it to flavor the pork and poultry that he sells. Its heady, honey-like, herbaceous aroma was so intoxicating that I bought several bags of the stuff. Back home in San Francisco, I sprinkled a pinch of it on fish before grilling. I scattered a bit over roasted vegetables, and then I tried it on a pork roast. The effect, in every case, was positively transformative.

When summer came, I replenished my pollen cache by harvesting my own -- easy, since fennel grows all over California (it is said that Italian immigrants brought it here in the 1800s). Across the street from my house on Hyde Street, I gathered blossoms, plunged them headfirst into paper bags, and hung them in my cellar for a few weeks, whacking the bags occasionally with a good kick to release the pollen.

Watch for fennel flowers in your neighborhood, in vacant lots and parks and along the road in the countryside of the Bay Area. Just hang the bags of the inverted fennel flowers in a dry spot, et voila, you'll have your own.

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