Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Saffron

by Sandra Bowens

Photo courtesy of Safa.Daneshvar and wikimedia commons

Imagine taking a spice that costs $50 an ounce and using it to dye, say, a sweater? Probably wouldn't happen these days but saffron has been used as a natural yellow dye.


Nor would you fill your pillow with saffron to prevent a hangover, as the early Romans did following a feast. Today's market prices are still in line with the Middle Ages, however, when you could trade a pound of saffron for a horse.


So why the hefty price tag, you may be wondering? Every step in the cultivation of the world's most expensive spice is done by hand. Saffron is the dried stigma of the purple saffron crocus. Crocus sativus is a member of the iris family. It blooms for only two or three weeks in autumn.


The flowers are picked by hand and then the reddish-orange stigmas, only three per flower, are plucked from each bloom. The "threads" are spread onto a sieve and cured over heat for half an hour to dry and deepen the flavor.


Native to southern Europe and Asia Minor, Spain is the world's largest grower and exporter of saffron. It takes 210,000 stigmas from 70,000 flowers to make up one pound. A one-acre plot will yield 8 to 12 pounds of the spice.


Saffron is said to symbolize the necessity of guarding against excess. If you go overboard with it in a recipe, you will wind up with a medicinal taste. Use just the right amount and saffron will impart a pleasant, somewhat spicy yet bitter flavor to a dish.


Most recipes will call for a "good pinch" of the threads. Just a quarter teaspoon will season rice for four or six people. Cookbook authors often recommend soaking the threads in water or milk before adding to a recipe. This also encourages that gorgeous yellow color to shine through.


The word saffron is derived from the Arabic word za'faran meaning yellow.


This pretty spice is common to fish and rice dishes in several cuisines. It is essential to a French bouillabaisse, the shellfish and fish stew. Spanish cooks consider it a must for paella, an exquisite dish of rice and seafood, as well as for arroz con pollo, chicken with rice. Risotto Milanese is the Italian offering for saffron rice. You might also try it as a seasoning for soups, potatoes or tomato dishes.


Don't let the expense of saffron keep you from cooking with it. As noted above, a little goes a long way. Generally, when you splurge on an ounce, you get it in a decorative tin for about $50. Still too much? You can get a gram for around $13 from Pendery's or LaTienda.


Look for the whole threads rather than buying the powdered form. As far back as 1 A.D. Pliny warned folks that saffron was a "frequently falsified commodity." Buy from a reputable spice dealer and avoid "Mexican saffron," which is usually safflower.


Store your saffron in a well-sealed container away from light and heat, like the rest of your spices. If you are concerned about theft, do what the restaurant chefs do: Lock it in the safe!


Sausage and Potato Stew with Saffron

A Spanish stew like this would normally be prepared with chorizo. Unless you make your own sausage, take a long look at the ingredient list before you purchase links of chorizo at the supermarket.


2 spicy sausages (about 3 ounces each), casings removed

2 teaspoons olive oil, optional

1 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into a large dice

2 cups chicken stock, or more for a thinner stew

1 good pinch (about 1/4 teaspoon) of saffron

1/2 cup peas, thawed if frozen

Salt and pepper, if desired

Spanish paprika, if desired


Crumble sausage and cook in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat until no longer pink. Remove to paper towels with a slotted spoon. Set aside.


Add oil to the pan if desired and necessary to cook the onion. Stir in onion. Cook 2 to 3 minutes; add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add potatoes; cook and stir for about 4 minutes or until they just begin to take on some color. Add stock and saffron; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10-15 minutes.


Use a hand-held immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot. (Alternately, you might accomplish this in batches with a food processor or blender.) Return sausage to stew and add peas. Taste for salt and pepper, season if desired. Continue simmering until peas are cooked through.


To serve, ladle into warmed bowls and sprinkle with paprika.


Makes 2 hearty portions




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