So, if this was an Oscar speech, instead of a blog post, it would begin, "First, I want to thank the redfox." I usually wind up checking out the new and exotic pretty late in the game. For all I know, fennel pollen has been in general use for a decade. But when I read her comments on the topic, I was a goner. She's my daughter, she's fussier than I am, and knows where of she speaks. And let me tell you, she was so right. I've got more experimenting to do, but this stuff is pretty much magic dust. A small pinch of fennel pollen seems to enliven the flavor of all sorts of things-without necessarily announcing its fennel-ness. It's a good thing it meets expectations, because it is really expensive. Fortunately, only a small amount is does the trick- but still.
In this particular dish, though, the fennel-ness of the pollen is a plus. I have gone on at some length before about the three way goodness of fennel- the bulb, the seeds and the frothy, herby top bits. This dish used them all, plus the fennel pollen-I think to good advantage, without any objectionable licorice-y sort of business. I made it for my brother's birthday, and thought it up to meet my primary requirement for company food. I favor dishes where most of the work can be done in advance..so you can enjoy your guests and not worry about the few last minute things to do. This one is based on the Al Forno-style baked pasta, with lots of crusty top, and brightly flavored innards. I think it would be a good vegetarian dish without the shrimp, with some extra feta to compensate.
Here is what I did. Nothing was exactly measured, so it is not a proper recipe, I'm afraid. Proportion wise-keep in mind that you want your end result moist and juicy, but not in anyway liquid. (Unless you don't, of course.)
1. Made ahead some tomato sauce with red onion, chopped fennel blub, garlic, shredded fresh basil, fennel fronds, fennel seeds, fresh chopped tomatoes of several kinds, bit of chopped carrot, and a can of Muir glen fire-roasted tomatoes. Cooked it down for about half an hour. Refrigerated.
2. Early day of serving: Defrosted a box of frozen spinach and squeezed it dry.(The fresh spinach around is not so nice at the moment). Mixed in a large-ish gratin dish (shallow baking dish) with crumbled feta, crumbled goat cheese, a large spoonful of ricotta, some cream, a major pinch of fennel pollen, and the tomato sauce. Refrigerated.
3. Later: Brought to boil large pasta pot with strainer full of salted water. Added equal quantities (weight-wise) of chunky short pasta and shelled and deveined raw shrimp. Boiled 7 minutes, strained, and dumped hot onto the mixture in the gratin dish. Mixed thoroughly with a large spoon, so that the hot shrimp and pasta melted up the cheese. This was a bit messy to do, what with the shallow dish, and all. Smoothed top- sprayed with olive oil spray, grated fresh parm over the top, tossed on a handful of Panko breadcrumbs, and re-sprayed, and set aside.
I like to use spray oil for gratins, because it gets all the nooks and crannies, which can be missed with drizzled oil. It is not an unpleasantly uniform looking effect, because the ups and downs of the surface make some areas darker than others- but there's more overall crunch. IMHO.
4. Just before serving baked in a hot-as-it-would-go oven, until bubbling up, and adorned with crusty brown bits over the top. This is very hard to time- it can take anywhere from 12 minutes to 40 minutes, depending on the oven, the amount of liquid, type of pasta, etc. Gotta watch it like a hawk. If it is done way too early, a couple of minutes in a microwave will reheat the innards without oversoftening the top. The crusty top part is a highly desirable feature.
Perhaps I will eventually do this up as a measured recipe, but I'll have to make it again to do that. Meanwhile-I wanted to share it-because I liked it so much. And I think this is probably enough information for most cooks who'd like to try it. If it isn't enough for you, please forgive me for the sloppiness, let me know, and I will email you in a few weeks, when I've done the math.
Further fennel fun: I'm trying out a fennel ratafia. No seeds (too assertive for this I thought?) : Finely chopped fennel, fennel pollen, vodka, and most of a leftover bottle of chablis. We'll see how it is after it's strained, in a month. I may mix some with tomato juice, for a fennelly bloody mary- if that doesn't sound too weird?