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Saffron (Recipe: lamb tagine with prunes and apricots) {gluten-free}


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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Lydia's Pie-ella
Risotto alla Milanese
Pomegranate fish
Paella a la Valenciana
Chicken with preserved lemon and olives

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Hmm - can you taste any difference between your various (and very cosmopolitan!) saffron samples?

How blessed you are to get gifts of saffron! And I agree with you about saffron, the right amount is marvelous. But, too much and it's pretty awful! I love the honey flavor--and so glad there is girl power in the herb world.

Saffron is heavenly, and worth every scent. The lamb tagine sounds just delightful, and exactly the kind of cooking project I was looking for this coming weekend!

All-girl saffron :D
My mother keeps her box of saffron in her jewelry drawer, along with her gold and pearls and silk sarees. She thinks it is way too precious to keep in the pantry.

I wasn't aware of the all-girl saffron thing. Have you noticed a difference amongst the different saffrons? I think I've only had Spanish before...

The tagine sounds great! I just happened to make another Moroccan dish this past weekend, too--certainly a great match for saffron (and those preserved lemons were definitely worth the wait)!

And on the note of great pairings, don't forget cream sauces! I did a poached chicken/saffron cream sauce thing a while back, and saffron is one of those things that really makes the sauce incredible.

this sounds heavenly, and I bet would transfer okay to a crockpot. I want to try it!

I'm also curious to hear if there was a difference between your three kinds of saffron. I recently made saffron cupcakes. They were different, but great if you love the flavor of saffron.


Camila, Mike, Stef: I'm so glad you asked about the taste. I've just received the Vietnamese saffron, so I haven't had a chance to cook with it yet. The aroma is slightly less strong -- and the color is definitely noticeably a mix of red and yellow (same with the Indian saffron). I'm planning to cook the same dish with all three, and do a proper taste test. The Spanish saffron is the most consistent, rich and red. I'll probably make risotto alla Milanese with each one.

Sher, too much saffron tastes bitter to me. But I don't think I could ever have too much in the pantry!

TW, I know you will have fun making this in your tagine. It is rich and a bit sweet -- perfect for cold weather.

Nupur, what a lovely aroma your mother must have in her jewelry drawer!

Mike, I'm glad your preserved lemons have matured now. You'll find so many wonderful things to do with them. The saffron cream sauce sounds luxurious, too.

Steph, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I think this would make a great dish for the slow cooker -- I'm still learning how to use mine, so I'd appreciate any tips about translating this recipe to that method of cooking.

Stef, thanks for the link -- I've never heard of saffron cupcakes before.

Saffron, YES.

Some years ago, I tried a delicious saffron-flavored corn chowder, I think from "Gourmet." I also love the complex flavors of the North African and Indian foods flavored with it. (But I'm not that crazy about paella).

A few days ago, I bought some gorgeous, huge scallops -- Whole Foods said wild caught -- and cooked them in butter that I had melted and slowly flavored with a couple pinches of saffron. I cut them in three slices each, so they cooked quickly. It's the simplest thing I've ever done with saffron.

Good things come in threes--and you have a trinity of AWESOME here. I am so infatuated with saffron--once you know the work that goes into it, you HAVE to savor it!

Great Recipe - I love lamb!! Thanks for the info on saffron. I'm just begining to learn more about that wonderful spice and cooking with it.

Lydia this looks just awesome. I so wish I could find the Middle Eastern market again that had the very best lamb I've ever found. But it seems to have vaporized on me.

That tagine is so pretty and your meal made in it sound delicious! I had lamb last night.

Saffron is wonderfully delicate. I bought some precious saffron in Dubai from Persia. It came in a gorgeous little metal box much like a jewelry box. That just describes exactly the way it should be handled. I love the sound of the tajine. This weekend I am making a lovely dessert where saffron is my star. But I am bookmarking this recipe to try for sure.

Mae, I'm a huge paella fan, but I've had some bad paella ruined by too much saffron. Your treatment of the scallops sounds delicate -- and perfect. I must try that.

Cakespy, after reading this post, my cousin called to say he'd brought some Iranian saffron from Istanbul, and wanted to send it to me! An embarrassment of riches, so many types of saffron at one time.

Sabina, another reader told me that all of the traditional tagine recipes from her native Algeria have saffron. I don't use it in all of my tagines, but it's lovely with the lamb.

MyKitchen, we used to buy lamb from a Greek market across the street from our house. We'd watch for the days when they carried in the whole lamb, and that's when we'd buy it.

Brilynn, I'm in love with my tagine and the way it cooks. It is the ultimate slow cooker.

Meeta, I never think to use saffron in sweets, so I'm going to watch for your post to see what you're making.

There are few pantry ingredients as transporting as saffron. Enjoy yours-this recipe looks divine.

I have been diagnosed with "fear of saffron" so the beautiful saffron from Iran has been in my pantry through multiple moves for about 20 years. Maybe this recipe will be the breakthrough therapy. (That website you cite is so informative, great reading.)

Aimee, I agree. Saffron always seems to work magic when you cook with it.

Susan, I hope this is the recipe that gets you over your fear! I'd suggest, if your saffron is really 20 years old, that you increase the quantity you use, as it's probably lost a bit of its punch over that much time.

You know I can't resist lamb and dried fruits tagine! I bet this was wonderful! As always!

Great informative post as usual! I made us lamb shanks with saffron prunes tonight without knowing you had posted the same flavors...good wave lenghths!!

Thanks for the link. This looks really good. We are eating less and less meat, so whenever I cook it, it needs to be really special. This is definitely one to try

Thanks for sharing

saffron is one of my favorite spices. Sure they are expensive...but a little goes a long long way!

Oh, Lydia, thank you for this! I don't know why this post has struck such a chord with me, something about the rarity and mystery of saffron, perhaps? Or that it is so prized to be kept alongside jewels?
I love that saffron should be all girl-on the island of Crete, the ancient Minoan (a peaceful, matriarchal culture)priestesses wore robes dyed with saffron for holy ceremonies and to denote their status.

All girls are always best!
In Spain they have something referred to simply as 'color' to use in paella when they don't want to buy the expensive saffron.
I want a tagine....

Warda, I always turn to your blog for advice about tagines. This one is quite rich and delicious.

Tartelette, there must be something in the air....!

Joanna, this is definitely a dish that makes a beautiful presentation -- for a party, or a holiday dinner, it would be lovely.

Veron, I agree -- and it's one of those ingredients, like parmesan cheese, where buying the very best you can afford will make a huge difference in the final product.

Rebecca, thanks for the information about about Crete -- I didn't know that, but I do know that saffron is the color of Tibetan monks' robes -- and the color that Christo used for "the gates" installation in Central Park a few years ago.

Katie, I wonder if the "color" is derived from the male part of the crocus (the stamens)? Or is it turmeric?

I too am tickled by the "all girl" top quality saffron comment. Delicious color, intriguing flavor- it is a relatively new flavor for me and have only used it for Spanish cooking. Thanks for more to think about.

Hi Lydia,
Thanks for the tip about looking out for only all-girl saffron :-)

You are indeed lucky with the differently source saffron. I look forward to hearing your comparison of the three, but from your response to Camila, Mike, Stef, sounds like teh Spanish one might be the winner. Maybe it also depends on what one uses it for. Maybe certain saffron variety is more suitable for certain dishes...just guessing.

Callipygia, I use saffron mostly for Italian and Spanish cooking, but I'm intrigued by the notion of using it in baked goods and creamy desserts like panna cotta, too.

Nora, what I'm wondering is whether saffron is like wine; you wouldn't bother to use an expensive wine for a stew that's going to cook a long time, so perhaps lesser grades of saffron are good for dishes that are going to cook for a while. I'll keep everyone posted on my taste test.

Of course my favorite spice would be all-girl! I love it!
Other than Paella, my favorite use for it is in a delicate vegetable pot pie. I think the recipe is in one of the Barefoot Contessa books- quite yummy!

Lydia, I must have gone crazy - I could swear I had commented on this post!

I was no stranger to saffron, but had never used it in my kitchen until not long ago. I can't wait to cook with it again!

I have yet to cook with saffron but it's definitely on my list!

The Spanish saffron looks thicker than the others if I'm looking for differences, but it's all very similar. I have tasted in paella at restaurants or other tapas dishes but still can't pinpoint exactly what the saffron aroma/flavor is. Is it salty? or..?

Katia, I love saffron -- it makes me feel that my cooking is somehow more elegant when I use it.

Patricia, several years ago I graduated from buying the little tiny containers of saffron in the supermarket to the one-ounce tins! I split the tin with a friend, because it's really quite a lot of saffron. But I find that I use it more when I can take out a pinch and not use the whole container, which is what happens with those little tiny plastic vials.

Amy, you must try it! There is nothing quite like saffron.

Hillary, the Spanish saffron is definitely the most uniformly red, and yes, the stigmas seem to be thicker, which probably means it's a better grade. Saffron is not salty; the best way I can describe it is musky (if that's a word?!). It is a unique flavor, not much aroma, and of course that wonderful golden color. Here's an experiment that will help you identify the flavor. Make a bit of plain white rice. Steep a few threads of saffron in hot water, and stir into half of the rice. Taste the plain rice, and taste the saffron flavored rice. The rice is fairly neutral and carries the flavor well.

Since buying our tajine we have used it at least 4 times a week ... the tastes of Morocco are right at the top of our list of favourite cuisines at the moment ... the little book by Ghillie Basan is very good. This dish is particularly delicious.

Bill, I'm delighted that you're enjoying your tagine! In the cooler weather, we used ours quite often, and there seem to be an endless variety of meat-and-dried-fruit dishes to cook in it. Glad you enjoyed this recipe.

I just made a vegetable tagine last night for the first time and loved it! Next time I will add lamb and apricots. Such a warm and satisfying meal...and healthy too!

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