You hear the same old quote repeated endlessly about fennel pollen, something about the sprinkling of spice from the wings of angels. Let’s just call it angel dust. You remember that stuff from late-night cop movies—a drug that made users goofy and totally out of their heads. Like truffles, saffron, and a handful of other exotic, pricey, and painstakingly harvested goodies, fennel pollen enjoys the same reputation in certain quarters.
I happened on a patch of wild fennel in late July when I was scouting locations for a class on urban foraging, part of a summer course offered by Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle called “The Art of Food.” I was looking for ripening blackberry bushes in the downtown core when I saw these towering thickets of yellow blooms adjacent to a parking lot in the International District. Sure enough, the blooms—some of them several feet high and buzzing with bees—turned out to be wild fennel plants.
Who knows how they got here. They might have been planted on purpose long ago by Italian immigrants who populated my own nearby neighborhood in Rainier Valley, when small agricultural plots still existed within the city limits, a place fondly remembered as Garlic Gulch. Fennel is technically a weed in this country but it’s native to the Mediterranean and has always been a favorite vegetable and spice of Greek, Italian, and other culinary traditions from that region.
I don’t have much experience with fennel pollen. I’ve eaten meats dusted with it in restaurants and that’s about it. In my car I found a pair of scissors and some paper grocery bags (always useful to have nearby) and set to work. Basically I just looked for the best blooms and snipped them at the stem right below the flower head. It didn’t take long to collect two full grocery bags of flowers. These I bunched together with the blooms facing down into the bag, stems tied. For the next several days I allowed the flowers to drop their tiny orange pellets of pollen and occasionally gave the bags a shake to speed the process along, a tip I gleaned from this article. By the end of the week I had accumulated about three tablespoons of the stuff. That’s not a typo: 3 tbsp! Go crazy, huh.
The thing of it is, though, you don’t need much fennel pollen to jazz up a cut of meat or add an ineffable savoriness to vegetables. For my first try I used a couple teaspoons with pork chops (considered a classic combo in the Old Country) on a bed of sauteed broccoli from the garden. I rolled the fatty end of the chops in the pollen before grilling, then dusted the remnants on the broccoli as it cooked in the pan. One of the chops—the control—was left untreated as a comparison.
I can say that the pollen added an almost sweet dimension to the pork chops with its hint of anise, though in this forager’s opinion it was the broccoli that really shined; somehow that fennel fairy dusting gave the veggies a brightness, an aliveness, that they otherwise would have lacked. The rest of my pollen, all two-plus tablespoons, went into a spice jar, awaiting the next experiment. While I don’t expect to become an angel dust junkie anytime soon, you know what they say about pollen being a gateway drug…
While hunting porcini the other day in the Colorado Rockies we stumbled on a large patch of wild strawberries (Fragraria sp.). Score! It seems I never find wild strawberries back home before the animals get to them, but for whatever reason we hit the jackpot on this less familiar ground.
The strawberry is one of those edible plants little improved by domestication. Sure, garden varieties are more prolific, with bigger berries, but their taste seldom rivals the complex strawberry flavor of their wild progenitors. In fact, the native strawberry patch is a perfect place for a wild food skeptic to have a Demascan Road moment—the small red, intensely flavorful berries are an object lesson in the providence of nature and testament to the fact that our tinkering is not always an improvement. My friends, who were along for the mushroom hike, had never eaten wild strawberries before and were quite simply blown away that something this delicious could be growing so inconspicuously on the forest floor.
Wild strawberries are found through much of the temperate world and across most of North America. Look for them in clearings, forest margins, and along roadsides and trails. Though frequently found in shady woods, they need ample sunlight to fruit. Woodland critters crave them as much as we do and my experience has been that the biggest obstacle to eating a handful of wild strawberries is not in locating the plants but in returning at just the right time to pluck ripe berries before the squirrels and rabbits and box turtles finish them off.
If your timing is good, you’ll find the next difficulty is living beyond the moment and putting a few aside for later to top pancakes and so on. The hand-to-mouth impulse proved too strong for us. There would be no conveying any berries home. Instead we happily sat in the dirt and gathered handfuls to eat as fast as we could pick.
The biggest fruitings of king boletes I’ve ever seen haven’t been in the Pacific Northwest. No, the Rockies own that distinction, in particular the high montane reaches of northern Colorado. We visit this region every year to see family. I can think of three separate occasions when I’ve hit the porcini jackpot dead-on. The first was a solo backpacking-fishing trip on the Colorado-Wyoming border that gave me my first inkling of what the Rockies could do from a mycophagist standpoint; the second an all-day singletrack mountain bike through high meadows not far from a gap in the Gore Range where the Colorado River punches out of Middle Park; and the third this week southeast of Steamboat Springs.
I don’t visit the Rockies enough to have firm beliefs about the mushroom hunting possibilities here, but this is what I’ve gathered so far. August is generally the month to check your porcini spots. If it’s not a drought year and normal patterns of afternoon showers prevail, start looking a few days after the rains start. Go high. Get above the lodgepole pine forests into more mixed coniferous forests, especially spruce. Here’s a shot of a “king with a view” just below an 11,000-foot pass in the Zirkel Wilderness.
The taste, though mushroomy and choice, might not be quite as nutty as Cascade fall porcini. Which brings me to my main question: Why the lack of a commercial culture surrounding this mushroom in the Rockies? Is the territory too remote? A lack of demand? Is this subspecies of king considered inferior to other varieties and therefore not sought after? I’ve never seen another pot hunter around here, never a buy station, never encountered that bane of the Northwest mushroomer: the cut stem. Maybe we’re far enough from Denver here to escape the competition.
We made pie with ours.
The best things in life are free—and easy. Take this weed salad that uses purslane as the featured ingredient. It’s delicious in inverse proportion to the time and skill required to make it. Which is to say it’s really good and really simple.
First, a word about weeds. You’ve heard me extol their virtues before. If you’re still a non-believer that weeds can save the world, I insist you try this recipe. Most Americans are busy pulling purslane (Portulaca oleracea—same family as miner’s lettuce) right now if they’re thinking about it at all—and pulling their hair out, too, because like Himalayan blackberry purslane can never be vanquished. But it can be eaten.
Here’s what you do. Pick a bunch of purslane, stem it (making sure to keep many of the leaf clusters intact), and toss it with a chopped sweet onion such as a Walla Walla and a large ripe heirloom tomato. That’s it. Season with salt and pepper and allow the tomato juice to form the dressing; squeeze a chunk of tomato into the salad if necessary to get the juices flowing.