Saffron (Recipe: lamb tagine with prunes and apricots)
In numerology, three can be lucky or unlucky.
Bad luck comes in threes, they say, but the third time's a charm.
For saffron, three is an auspicious number -- the number of stigmas, what we recognize as saffron threads, in each crocus flower.
Only three. Which is why it takes more than 70,000 flowers to yield one pound of saffron. Which is why saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.
According to the informative site Vanilla Saffron, Crocus sativus flowers in the Fall in many different countries, including Greece, India, Iran and Spain. Each flower contains three stigmas (the female part of the flower), the only part of the crocus that when dried become commercial saffron. Each bright red stigma is like a little capsule that encloses the complex chemicals that make up saffron's aroma, flavor, and yellow dye. In order to release these chemicals, you must steep the threads.
The male part of the saffron flower, the deep yellow stamens, are half the size of the stigmas and have no culinary value. Unfortunately, they are sometimes added to the red stigmas to increase the weight of commercial saffron. When you purchase saffron, look for the deepest red and uniform color; you want all-girl saffron.
In the kitchen, a little saffron goes a long way. To be sure it's evenly distributed throughout a dish, steep the threads in hot water for a few minutes, then add both the threads and the liquid to your recipe. Saffron pairs well with many foods, including almond, yogurt , rice and grains, cinnamon, pistachio, potatoes and tomatoes.
Store saffron in an airtight container, away from heat or light, and it will last for more than a year in your pantry. After that, the flavor will diminish somewhat, so increase the amount called for in your recipe. If you have the option, do not buy powdered saffron; the quality is often inferior, and the pungency degrades quickly as soon as the threads are ground.
Twice in the past couple of months, I've received the gift of saffron, from my traveling sister-in-law Jill and my traveling friend Candy. So, I now have three different saffrons in the pantry, from three different parts of the world (left to right in the photo above): Vietnam, India and Spain.
Could a pantry be more lucky than that?
Lamb tagine with prunes and apricots
It was such fun to prepare and serve this in my ceramic tagine, but a heavy Dutch oven also works well for this low-and-slow cooking. If you're going to cook in the tagine, start the recipe in a frying pan and transfer contents to the tagine base, as indicated below. Recipe adapted from Tagine: Spicy Stews from Morocco, by Ghillie Basan. Serves 4, with couscous.
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp blanched almonds
1 large red onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
A thumb-size piece of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
A pinch of saffron threads
2 cinnamon sticks
1-2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
1 lb boneless leg of lamb, or boneless lamb shanks, cubed
12 pitted prunes, soaked in hot water for 1 hour, drained
6 dried apricots, soaked in hot water for 1 hour, drained
3-4 strips orange peel
1-2 Tbsp agave nectar or dark honey
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Handful of flat-leaf parsley or cilantro leaves, for garnish
Heat the oil in a large frying pan or Dutch oven, stir in the almonds, and cook until they turn golden. Add the onions and garlic, and sauté until they begin to color (do not burn the garlic). Stir in the ginger, saffron, cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds. Add the lamb, making sure it is coated in the onion and spices, and sauté for 1-2 minutes.
If you are using a frying pan, transfer everything to the base of a ceramic tagine.
Pour in enough water to just cover the meat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to lowest simmer, cover the tagine or Dutch oven, and simmer for 1 hour or until the meat is tender. Add the prunes, apricots and orange peel, cover the tagine again, and simmer 15-20 minutes. Stir in the agave or honey, salt and pepper, cover, and continue to simmer for 10 minutes, or until the sauce turns syrupy and slightly caramelized, but not dry. Stir in the parsley or cilantro, and serve with couscous or bread.