My sister-in-law, a scientist who often worked with the World Health Organization, traveled to places most tourists never go, and from many of those places she brought back wooden spoons for my kitchen.
From Pakistan, however, she brought saffron. Real, honest-to-goodness saffron threads.
Imagine my glee! It looked red enough, like the high-quality (and high-priced) Spanish saffron I usually buy. When I opened the baggie, I noticed a kind of musty odor, but saffron does smell a bit, so I didn't think twice about cooking with it.
After the first time I used that saffron, in risotto, I knew there wouldn't be a second time. The rice turned brown instead of golden yellow, and the taste? Like road dust. The rest went into the compost bin, and I went back to my good Spanish saffron.
The moral of the story is: be grateful for the gifts you receive, but don't cook with them if they come in unmarked baggies and smell funky.
What is saffron?
The stigmas of the crocus sativus flower. Buy saffron threads rather than ground saffron, so you are sure that what you're getting is pure saffron, and not a mix of saffron cut with less-expensive turmeric.
How/where to store?
In a cool, dark place. I buy saffron in tins, and decant just a small amount into a jar on my spice rack. The rest stays in a plastic bag inside the tin, on a shelf in the cool cellar, for up to one year.
Facts about saffron, and ingredient photos, on The Perfect Pantry:
Saffron (Recipe: pie-ella)
Risotto with shrimp and asparagus
What's pink and green and gold all over? This delicious risotto, just in time to usher in Spring. Serves 4 as a main course; can be doubled.
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 stalks asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 cups chicken broth (homemade stock or low-sodium store-bought)
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp saffron threads
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup finely minced onion
1 cups carnaroli or arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
In a small nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tsp olive oil. Sauté the shrimp and asparagus for 2-3 minutes, until the shrimp just curls and turns pink. Remove from the pan to a bowl, and set aside while you make the rice.
Bring broth to a boil on the stovetop or in a microwave, and set aside. Place 1/2 cup water and the saffron threads into a small glass measuring cup; heat in the microwave for 1 minute, then set aside.
Heat remaining oil in a large, deep skillet or 4-quart straight-sided pan. Add the onion, and sauté until soft but not brown, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the rice, making sure to coat each grain, and stir until the rice just begins to turn light brown.
Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the wine. It will bubble up, so be careful. Return the pan to the heat. When the liquid is absorbed, begin adding broth, 1 ladleful at a time, letting each bit of liquid be absorbed. After 1 cup is added, stir the saffron water into the rice. Continue adding broth, reserving a few tablespoons at the end. Remove from heat. Add butter and cheese, and stir vigorously for 2 minutes. Add in any remaining broth, and stir to desired creaminess.
Stir in the shrimp and asparagus. Season to taste with black pepper, and serve immediately.
Other recipes that use saffron:
Quick coconut ice cream with saffron, from David Lebovitz
Grilled salmon packets with tomatoes, olives, garlic, thyme, and saffron, from Kalyn's Kitchen
Saffron rice pudding, from What's for Lunch, Honey?
Chard and saffron tart, from The Wednesday Chef
Kashmiri chai, from Appetite for China
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