Saffron (Recipe: pie-ella, improved)
- According to Greek mythology, Crocos, a good-looking mortal, fell in love with Smilax, a lovely nymph. But she wasn't interested, so she turned him into a good-looking purple flower. Saffron are the stigmas from that crocus sativus flower; there are only three stigmas per flower. If Smilax had liked Crocos more, she probably would have given him more stigmas.
- It takes one acre of crocus to yield 10 pounds of saffron; 70,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of saffron; approximately 13,125 stigmas to equal one ounce.
- The best saffron hails from Spain; good quality saffron is also grown in Iran, the Kashmir, Greece and Italy. And in Landisville, Pennsylvania. You can grow your own saffron, but at three stigmas per flower, you'll need a pretty large garden to grow enough to open a saffron stand in front of your house. (A saffron stand would be far more profitable than a lemonade stand, however. See #10, below.)
- 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.
- Don't buy powdered saffron; it might be adulterated with turmeric or safflower. Both give a yellow color, but have a terribly bitter flavor. In the 15th Century, according to foodreference.com, any merchant caught selling adulterated saffron in Bavaria was burned alive. (I don't actually know if this is true, and I think the punishment is a bit harsh. However, having just cooked with some very poor quality saffron that my sister-in-law brought from Pakistan, I think people who sell adulterated saffron should be forced to eat it, and that would be punishment enough.)
- When red saffron threads are infused in liquid, they give off a golden color, the shade of Buddhist monks' robes and Christo's gates. Added early in the cooking process, saffron imparts more color; when you add saffron later, you'll notice more flavor.
- Both fairies and pharoahs love foods made with saffron. In fact, the ancient Egyptian rulers believed saffron was an aphrodisiac.
- Complimentary flavors and textures for saffron include almond, apples, basil, bone marrow, dairy products, cilantro, cinnamon, citrus, fish stock, garlic, most grains, pistachio, potatoes, rosemary, thyme, tomatoes, vinegar and white wine.
- Special dishes of many cuisines feature saffron; think of bouillabaisse, zarzuela, risotto Milanese, paella, biryani, saffron buns... even kulfi.
- It's expensive ($50 per ounce, or more, for the good stuff), 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 in your pantry. I store my saffron in its tin, and move a little bit at a time into a recycled mustard jar on my spice rack.
I made this wonderful dish twice last week. The first time the rice turned brown, a result of using inferior saffron. (Lesson learned: When your favorite sister-in-law returns from a business trip to Pakistan with a little baggie of saffron that she bought at a street market, thank her profusely -- but don't cook with it.) The second time, my friend Ben and I cooked together, and the rice turned a beautiful golden color, offset by the red and green peppers, olives, and shrimp. My photo doesn't do it justice. Serves 6.
1 large pinch saffron threads
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 hot smoked sausages (I use Beef Hot Links), cut on a diagonal into large chunks; you can substitute your favorite spicy pork sausage)
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 (I use Swanson 99%; if you use homemade, you'll need to add salt)
1 cup carnaroli or arborio rice
18 pitted black jumbo olives (use canned olives, because you don't want a strong flavor)
18 large (21-25 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined
Lots of black pepper to taste
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 4- or 6-quart stockpot, heat the olive oil. Add sausage chunks, and brown all over. Using long tongs, remove sausage from pan into a small bowl. Add chicken, brown all over and remove from pan into another small bowl. 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. Run a spatula along the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck bits of rice. 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 use your spatula along the bottom of the pan every now and then to keep the rice from sticking, and if it is cooking too fast, add the remaining 1/2 cup chicken stock. Continue cooking until the shrimp are done, approximately 5 minutes or so. Serve hot.