I can be dismissive of recipes which demand I zig zag all over town hunting down exotic ingredients. Of course I understand that some Japanese dishes just aren’t the same without yuzu, and that tracking down some real kaffir lime leaves will elevate my curry to otherworldly levels, but back here on planet Earth…
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
So please hear me out before you decide not to read one letter further when I tell you that you must – MUST – find yourself a tidy little tin of fennel pollen in order to make this salmon.
Yes. Fennel pollen.
A few years ago (well, five to be exact), James and I naughtily nipped across 8th Avenue (on more nights than I care to admit) to dine at our favorite restaurant, dell’anima. It wasn’t exactly an economic decision as we weren’t merely treating ourselves to a slice and a soda, but every single morsel on the menu was delectable, and we rationalized that one day we’d be happy we took advantage of having such a culinary gem tucked just feet from our doorstep. (Which, for the record, that has proven true.)
One dish in particular was James’ absolute favorite: pollo al diavolo, which was a half roast chicken seared till the skin was as crisped as a potato chip and dusted with a combination of spices that was somehow familiar yet so hard to place. We always sat at the chef’s counter, and one evening I was able to catch the attention of the busy sous chef who never failed to give us a familiar head nod and smile each time we traversed through the velvet cloaked doors. Upon slight pressing, he told me the secret to the chicken was fennel pollen, and without missing a beat as soon as we arrived home (and by the powers that be Amazon) I had a tin of it on it’s merry way to my door.
I haven’t quite been able to recreate that chicken in it’s entirely (though I assure you that I am still feverishly trying and will report back, tout suite), but having acquired said fennel pollen I began an enduring love affair that has seen me through no fewer than 5 tins in as many years.
It is quite delicious stuff; it tastes of the very essence of fennel, yet somehow manages to hit background notes (florally, spring-y, hard to describe flavors) that the slightly licorice-y vegetable just doesn’t convey in its normal form. It’s a great ‘secret ingredient,’ and even when used simply – like here, dusted onto salmon filets and seared till the flavors are embedded into a wonderful brown crust – it’s an addition that will have everyone asking just what they’re tasting.
The pesto – utilizing asparagus and walnuts instead of the usual basil and pine nuts – adds freshness and a bit of a garlicky bite, and the leftovers make excellent additions to almost anything you can throw it at – pasta, sandwiches, salads, and pizzas.
Do yourself a favor and track this stuff down – it’s a little pot of gold that you’ll find yourself turning to time and time again.
Fennel Pollen Dusted Seared Salmon with Asparagus Walnut Pesto
I usually loathe recipes which have you hunting down an exotic ingredient, but in this case, you really just must order yourself a tin of fennel pollen. There is no substitute, and it gives the salmon a certain flavor that is impossible to recreate or improve on using anything else. Find your pollen here (and thank me later). A 1oz tin seems absurdly tiny, but a little goes a LONG way. It is also fabulous on chicken.
This recipe will make a good 2+ cups of pesto; it is so good tossed with pasta, spread on sandwiches, tucked into paninis, dolloped on pizza….basically anywhere you’d use a more traditional pesto, this works.
Serve the salmon with simple sides, like couscous and roasted vegetables.
12oz best quality salmon, with skin on (a sustainable wild type or organically farmed, if possible)
2 pinches fennel pollen
kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
1 small bunch (about 10 stalks) fresh asparagus
2 cloves garlic
4 oz good quality parmesan cheese, broken into small pieces
1 cup walnut halves (or pieces)
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
juice and zest of 1 lemon
First, make the pesto. In the bowl of a food processor, whiz the garlic till it is finely chopped. Snap the woody ends off of the asparagus, and place them in the processor with the garlic. Add the parmesan cheese, a good three-finger pinch of salt, and the walnut pieces, and pulse the mixture till it is well combined. Add in the lemon juice and zest, and then drizzle the olive oil into the pesto while the processor is running. Add enough oil to get the pesto texture to your liking – I prefer it on the thicker side for using as a topping in a dish like this. You may find you need more than a half cup of oil, but I used just about that and was happy with the consistency. Taste the pesto, and add salt if needed. Hold the pesto to the side – you’ll have about 2 cups.
Cut the fish into 2 evenly sized filets, and season each side with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Take the fennel pollen, and dust it evenly over the tops of the filets (not the side with the skin). You should have a filet that looks very well coated in seasoning.
Heat the grapeseed oil over high heat in a skillet large enough to hold the salmon. When the pan is very hot, add the salmon, skin side down, and cook till the skin is crisped and the fish is cooked about 1/3 of the way up the side, about 2 minutes. Flip the salmon filets carefully, and sear the top (non-skin) sides till they are browned and crisped and the salmon is cooked just shy of medium, another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
Ladle a generous spoonful of the flavorful pesto over the salmon, and serve immediately.