Key Ingredient: John Coletta isn't allergic to fennel pollen | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

Key Ingredient: John Coletta isn't allergic to fennel pollen 

Challenged to create a dish with a summery spice, Quartino's chef uses the ingredient in a salad and a pizza.

click to enlarge Fennel pollen - JULIA THIEL
  • Fennel pollen
  • Julia Thiel

The Chef: John Coletta (Quartino)
The Challenger: Michael Lachowicz (Restaurant Michael)
The Ingredient: Fennel pollen

"A sprinkling of fennel pollen makes pure magic," the Wall Street Journal declared in 2012. More than a decade before that, Peggy Knickerbocker wrote in Saveur, "If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it." And Max Falkowitz, after explaining in a Serious Eats column that fennel pollen is "a trendy spice, bandied about in cheffy circles and locavore/forager networks," says that "it tastes like pure summer joy."

John Coletta of Quartino, challenged by Michael Lachowicz (Restaurant Michael) to create a dish with fennel pollen, is also a fan of the spice, though he doesn't wax quite as poetic about it. Still, he says he's been using it for years at Quartino. As far as flavor goes, he says that fennel pollen "has a lot of depth. It's a concentrated, intense licorice flavor." And unlike fennel seeds, which need to be toasted to maximize flavor, the pollen can be used as is.

John Coletta - JULIA THIEL
  • John Coletta
  • Julia Thiel

To demonstrate fennel pollen's versatility, Coletta prepared two dishes with it. The first, a salad of raw summer vegetables, included shaved fennel bulbs, beets, zucchini, yellow squash, radishes, celery, and carrots, all tossed with dandelions, chives, parsley, fennel fronds, and celery leaves. Coletta lightly dressed the salad with olive oil and lemon, added a little salt and pepper, and finished it with a sprinkling of fennel pollen.

"It really heightens the flavor . . . gives it some great depth," he says. "We're utilizing it as another seasoning component, as if we were using salt or pepper but a little bit more intense in flavor."

A salad of raw summer vegetables sprinkled with fennel pollen - JULIA THIEL
  • A salad of raw summer vegetables sprinkled with fennel pollen
  • Julia Thiel

Quartino's menu currently features a pizza with shaved fennel, which Coletta decided to use for his second fennel pollen dish. He stretched the dough, explaining that he was purposely making the thickness slightly uneven to create contrasting textures. Fennel pollen went on top of Gorgonzola cream (a fresh cheese made in-house with heavy cream), which Coletta then topped with walnut pesto and shaved fennel before putting it in the oven. The walnut pesto is just walnuts and olive oil; adding garlic, he says, would mask the flavor of the nuts.

After the pizza finished baking, Coletta topped it with raw shaved fennel—for a texture contrast with the now-cooked fennel—and fennel pollen. "This pizza's been on our menu for a few months, and I can tell you that by adding fennel pollen to this dish, it's increased the intensity of the flavor of the fennel," he says. "Absolutely exquisite."

Pizza topped with Gorgonzola cream, shaved fennel, walnut pesto, and fennel pollen - JULIA THIEL
  • Pizza topped with Gorgonzola cream, shaved fennel, walnut pesto, and fennel pollen
  • Julia Thiel

Who's next:

Coletta has challenged Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia to create a dish with salt cod (cod preserved by a process of salting and drying). "I thought it would be very fitting for Tony and Spiaggia," Coletta says. "Salt cod is a preparation that is near and dear to most Italians' hearts."

Shaved summer vegetable salad with fennel pollen

1/3 cup each: pink radishes, fennel, celery, carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, and beets, all sliced paper thin
1/3 cup dandelions; two-inch pieces
2 T chives, cut into one-inch sticks
2 T Italian parsley leaves
2 T fennel tops
2 T celery tops
1 T fresh lemon juice
3 T organic extra-virgin olive oil
To taste: sea salt or kosher salt, ground black pepper, fennel pollen

Wash the vegetables well in cold water. Transfer the washed vegetables to a salad spinner and spin until free from water. Place the vegetables and herbs into a stainless steel bowl and drizzle with lemon juice and organic extra-virgin olive oil. Season to taste with salt, pepper and fennel pollen. Toss the ingredients and serve on a salad plate or bowl.

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