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October 5, 2006

Saffron (Recipe: pie-ella)

Saffron

I'm just mad about Saffron
Saffron's mad about me
I'm just mad about Saffron
She's just mad about me

They call me mellow yellow
(Quite rightly)
They call me mellow yellow
(Quite rightly)
They call me mellow yellow...

Ah, 1969. The best of Donovan. (Listen here.)

While the song goes on to talk about electrical bananas, and the mellow yellow he was singing about wasn't really the saffron that's in my pantry, I still hum a few bars whenever I reach for saffron on my spice rack.

Saffron are the stigmas from the crocus sativus flower; there are only three stigmas per flower. Why is saffron the world's most expensive spice?

  • 1 acre yields ten pounds of saffron
  • 70,000 crocus flowers yield one pound of saffron
  • 13,125 threads make one ounce
  • 20 medium threads equal one pinch

My saffron hails from Spain; good quality saffron is also grown in Iran, the Kashmir, Greece and Italy. Coupe, the top grade, is a rich deep color, with long, smooth threads. Mancha, the next-best grade and more widely available, is more orange-red in color. Look for threads that are uniformly deep red, not mellow yellow. And don't buy powdered saffron; it may be adulterated with turmeric.

Saffron smells a bit musky and floral. When the threads are infused in liquid, they give off a characteristic golden color: the shade of Buddhist monks' robes, or Christo's gates in Central Park. Added early in the cooking process, saffron imparts more color; when you add saffron later, you'll notice more flavor.

Special dishes of many cuisines feature saffron. There's bouillabaisse, of course, and zarzuela, classic risotto Milanese, paella, biryani, Swedish saffron buns....even saffron kulfi.

It's expensive ($50 per ounce, or more), but a little goes a very long way, and if kept in the dark and away from heat, saffron will last for a couple of years.

Lydia's Pie-ella

One summer when my friend Joyce was visiting, I invented this dish for her as a not-too-spicy alternative to paella, though with the same rich quality. It's been a house specialty ever since. Serves 4.

Ingredients

1 large pinch saffron threads
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 hot smoked sausages (I use Beef Hot Links from the supermarket, but you can use turkey or chicken sausages; anything smoked will work, but hot and spicy is better!), cut on a diagonal into large chunks
1/2 – 3/4 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into large chunks
1 medium red onion, cut in quarters
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into large chunks
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into large chunks
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock (low sodium storebought, or homemade)
1 cup arborio rice
12 – 18 pitted black jumbo olives (use canned olives, because you don’t want a strong flavor)
15 – 18 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (21-25 size or 26-30 size. A few more or less won’t matter.)
Black pepper to taste

Directions

Soak the saffron in 1 cup hot water for 15 minutes. Then, put on an apron — the first steps in this cooking are messy. In a 3-quart straight-sided sauté pan, or 4- or 6-quart stockpot, heat the olive oil. Add sausage chunks, and brown all over. Remove from pan. Add chicken, brown all over and remove from pan. The pan will be black and gunky, but don’t worry — this will all dissolve into the finished dish. Add onion, green and red peppers, and sauté quickly until the onion is just translucent, about 2 minutes. Return the sausage to the pan, add the saffron water with saffron, wine and 1-1/2 cups of the stock. When the liquid boils, turn down to low. Add the rice, stir once, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chicken back into the pan, along with the olives. Now, don’t stir for a while.

Go away, drink some wine, make a salad.

Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the rice is nearly cooked, about 10 minutes or more. There should still be liquid in the rice, but not much. Add the shrimp, making sure to stuff them down into the rice. Season with lots of black pepper. From this point, you may have to stir every now and then to keep the rice from sticking, and if it is cooking too fast, add the remaining chicken stock. Continue cooking until the shrimp are done, approximately 5 minutes or so. Serve hot. 

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

Comments

This sounds wonderful. I have a friend who travels to Iran a few times each year to visit his family and he sends me saffron. How lucky is that?

Nupur from One Hot Stove told me that her mother keeps the saffron with her JEWELRY not in the cupboard ... how's that for precious?!

Kalyn, you are tooooo lucky! I'm not sure I've ever had Iranian saffron -- well, probably have, but have not purchased it. How does it compare to the Spanish?

Alanna, I love that. Saffron deserves a place of honor, even if it's not in the kitchen!

Lydia, I love what you are doing here with colors — how creative! Now, if you can create a recipe for an electrical banana using saffron...

While in India I picked up a couple of small packages of Saffron. However, when I got home I noticed that the expiration date had long past. Do you think I should throw it out or go ahead and use it? It doesn't go bad does it?

Mimi, with all of the potassium in bananas, you'd think we could come up with a recipe!

Mary, if it's been stored in a dark tin, in a relatively cool place, saffron will last for quite a while. I'd definitely use it, but realize that it may have lost some potency. So you might need to increase the amount in your recipe.

Not too long ago, I made a wonderful Provencal vegetable soup from "Barefoot in Paris" -- my first time using saffron. It has a wonderfully heady smell, flowery and vaguely spicy, although the price is not for the faint of heart!

Jeanne, the price is daunting -- and if you buy in the supermarket in those tiny vials, it's actually much more expensive. I buy the tin (it costs $45-60, depending on where you buy), and share with several friends. That way, we can keep our supply fresh. I love "Barefoot in Paris", too; the chicken with 40 cloves of garlic is amazing!

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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