Recipes: Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta, Rosemary, and Fennel Pollen; Braised Carrots with Marsala and Sicilian Capers
I haven’t played with fennel pollen in a while. It was such a chef fad a few years back that since then I’ve had trouble getting the smell out of my nose. But recently, while on a mission to work more vegetables into my meals, I reintroduced myself to its beautiful aroma, one that goes very well with early fall vegetables, especially, to my taste, members of the brassica family—all the cabbages.
I’ve been cooking tons of vegetables, but do I want to eat them all? Yes, because another part of the assignment I’ve given myself is to come up with unexpected seasonings, not just going on automatic pilot—falling back on garlic and hot chilies with broccoli rabe, raisins and pine nuts with spinach, an approach that, at this point in my culinary life has no business in my head anyway. Now I’m keeping my herbs and spices rotating and revisiting flavors I might have neglected. So I find myself again with a little jar of fennel pollen, the fragrant bits collected from fennel’s firework-like cluster of tiny yellow blooms, which when dried take on an intense but sweet flavor. This stuff is more directly fennel than fennel seeds are, and it’s devoid of the bitter aftertaste that the seeds can have. If you haven’t used fennel pollen in a while or have never tried it, give it a shot. Last week I scattered a little into my broccoli rabe and sausage pasta. Transformational. And I think you’ll really like this new Brussels sprouts creation of mine. The fennel pollen lightens up what can often seem a too strongly flavored and dense vegetable.
Also, don’t forget your Sicilian salt-packed capers from Pantelleria or Lipari, the best capers in the world. They’re not just for fish. They’re gentle and sweet and have less acidity than vinegar-packed ones, so they don’t overpower most vegetables. Here I’ve paired them with carrots. The capers give them a little kick, cutting their sweetness and breaking through their sometimes soapy undertone. (Do you ever get that taste from carrots? And I’m not just talking supermarket carrots.)
Please let me know if there is a fall vegetable you’ve gotten into a rut with. That predictable butternut squash soup again? Another kale salad with dried cranberries? Whatever might be bogging you down, send it along. I’ll think it through for you.
Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta, Rosemary, and Fennel Pollen
(Serves 4 as a first course or side dish)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound small Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half
About ¼ cup chopped pancetta
2 small leeks, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
3 small sprigs of rosemary, leaves chopped
A splash of dry vermouth
The zest from 1 lemon
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the Brussels sprouts, pancetta, and leeks. Sauté until the pancetta is crisp and the vegetables are lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Now add the garlic, the fennel pollen, and the rosemary, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté a minute longer, and then add the vermouth, letting it boil away. Add a big splash of warm water, and cover the skillet. Turn the heat down to low, and cook until just tender, about another 3 or 4 minutes. You should have a little liquid left in the skillet. Add the lemon zest. Good hot or at room temperature.
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Braised Carrots with Marsala and Sicilian Capers
(Serves 4 as a first course or side dish)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch batons about ½ inch thick
1 teaspoon sugar
5 big scrapings of nutmeg
⅓ cup dry Marsala
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
A few large sprigs of tarragon, leaves lightly chopped
Choose a wide skillet, with a lid, that will more or less hold the carrots in one layer. Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the carrots, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Sauté a minute or so to lightly caramelize the sugar. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet, and simmer until the carrots are just tender, 5 minutes or so.
When the carrots are about a minute away from done, uncover the skillet, and cook to let the liquid evaporate to a moist glaze. Add the capers and a drizzle of olive oil, and season with black pepper and a little more salt, if needed. Transfer to a serving dish, add the tarragon, and give it a quick toss. Serve hot.