If there is one ingredient to have in your kitchen that is most like fairy dust, it would be fennel pollen. Sprinkle a little on chicken before you roast it and good things happen. Work some into a pasta dish and you're sure to create some smiles. Its own flavor is a combination of fresh fennel seed, along with notes of honey and citrus. Think aromatic anise. It seems to add warmth and savoriness to anything from vegetables to baked goods.
Fennel pollen might seem as exotic as saffron because you can usually only find it in specialty food stores. Unlike saffron though, it's something you can produce from your own garden. Over the past few years, we've eagerly welcomed the sight of bright yellow flowers above the fennel fronds in vegetable gardens around town.
Harvesting fennel pollen is easy. Gather lots of fennel flower clusters, tie them together at the stem ends, and put them in a paper bag. Hang the bag somewhere dry for a week or two for the flowers to dry. The pollen drops to the bottom of the bag. Give the bundles of flowers an extra shake in the bag to loosen up the remaining pollen. Remove the stems and any other debris. Transfer your culinary fairy dust to an airtight container. That's it.
When we first started drying our own fennel pollen, we weren't sure what to do with the finished product. In fact, you can combine it with large, flakey sea salt and lemon zest. Packaged up as a beautiful finishing salt, it becomes a great gift for friends. Through the years, we've figured out ways to quickly use up the current year's harvest. By experimenting with a ratio of about a pinch per person in each dish, you will be pleased with the flavor results. A favorite new way to use our fennel pollen harvest is this delicious recipe for giant ravioli. It's filled with ricotta and finished with a light cream sauce, both laced with lemon and fennel pollen, of course. When making your own ravioli, you can use store-bought sheets of pasta and turn them into several giant triangles instead of many little squares, to get dinner on the table much more quickly. Using fennel pollen to flavor this dish, and shifting from a typical ravioli size and shape can also be a welcome surprise.
Ravioli with Ricotta, Fennel Pollen and Lemon
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp fennel pollen
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 lb fresh pasta sheets (each approx. 12 in. x 12 in.)
2 cups heavy cream
1 Tbsp minced shallot
1 tsp fennel pollen
2 tsp lemon zest
2 Tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Place the ricotta in a large bowl and work it with a spatula until fluffy. Fold in the Parmesan, lemon zest, fennel pollen, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined. Fold in the eggs just until combined. Cover and refrigerate while you prepare the pasta dough.
Place one sheet of pasta dough onto a cutting board at a time. Cut into 4 equal squares. Spoon a scant 1/4 cup of filling onto the center of each square and gently spread it, leaving a generous border. With your fingertips, spread a bit of water on the border around the filling. Fold the square in half to form a triangle. Using the back of a fork, gently press down along the border to seal the edges all the way around.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water generously. Depending on the size of your pot, consider cooking the ravioli in several batches to avoid crowding which can cause the ravioli stick to one another. Carefully lower ravioli into the pot. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Using a slotted spoon, carefully lift the ravioli out of the pot one at a time, letting the excess water drip off. Place the ravioli on a plate, without them overlapping and cover lightly with foil to keep warm.
Combine the sauce ingredients in a large skillet. Over low heat, bring to a low simmer. Continue to simmer until the cream is thickened and reduced by half. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Gently add the ravioli to the skillet. Using a spatula, fold the sauce over the ravioli to coat them.
Plate the ravioli on individual plates (2-3 per serving). Using a spatula, scrape any remaining sauce out of the pan, drizzling onto the ravioli. Garnish with additional grated Parmesan and fennel pollen. (Our photo also includes fresh pollen flowers and kale sprouts as garnish.)