Most of the accomplished cooks I know don't like the idea of a "secret ingredient." They insist that every ingredient is important, that technique and taste matter as much as the prices of your shopping list, and that no amount of truffles or foie gras can rescue bad or mediocre cooking. I'll buy that, but it's hard to ignore the near-magical qualities of some ingredients. They may not turn us into chefs overnight, but they do have the power to transform good cooking into something truly memorable.
"It tastes like pure summer joy."
Take, for instance, fennel pollen. It's a trendy spice, bandied about in cheffy circles and locavore/forager networks. In an article for Saveur, the food writer Peggy Knickerbocker waxes poetic, "if angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it." This is only slight hyperbole. Fennel pollen is an incredibly powerful spice, with notes of licorice, citrus, and handmade marshmallows. It tastes like pure summer joy.
By way of more concrete analogy, the fennel pollen compares to leafy fennel fronds as a rich, golden chicken stock compares to powdered bouillon cubes. It has an authority to it, and lends a confidence to dishes as if they were to say, this is what food should taste like. So no, it won't save a bad recipe, but it makes a good one resplendent.
I hate to say you can use the spice on everything, so I won't, but it is remarkably versatile. It can tread wherever fennel and anise do when you want that flavor more pronounced and nuanced. Some of my favorite uses: pork and chicken, roasted, sautéed, and (especially) made into sausage. Use fennel pollen to season meat with a dry rub of salt, or sprinkle on just before serving. Light summery soups, of the kinds filled with tomatoes, eggplant, and the like, gain headiness from a light sprinkle at the table. In colder times, when my oven churns out roasted vegetables with Fordian efficiency, fennel pollen is close at hand.
Grains of all kinds take well to fennel pollen. Think rustic plates of quinoa and tabbouleh, grains with gusto to stand up to fennel pollen's intensity. But milder starches work well too. Add to slices of crusty peasant bread lavished with butter, or toss into this week's recipe: a minimalist spaghetti dressed with olive oil, orange zest, and mint. Also pay attention to the sweet side of the starchy spectrum. Specifically: squat buttery cookies and tall loaf cakes, rich with olive oil.
The trick to fennel pollen is not to overuse it. A little really does go a long way, and even a gingerly pinch may be too much. So go slow, add with care, and use mostly towards the very end of cooking so as to preserve its flavor. Depending on where you get your fennel pollen, it may be more gritty than powdery. A quick whizz in the spice grinder will decrease its shelf life but vastly improve its texture.
Fennel pollen can be harvested wherever fennel grows, so it's popular with foragers (The Atlantic's got you covered on that). But pay attention to pesticide use in that area to ensure you aren't eating toxin-spiked pollen. You can also buy fennel pollen at farmer's markets, specialty spice shops, and online from merchants like Pollen Ranch, Zingerman's, and The Spice House.