Saffron is one of my favorite spices, it is also the most expensive spice in the world, so I use it sparingly. You can find recipes using it from across the globe, and amazingly enough despite their reputation for being plain and thrifty, the Pennsylvania Dutch love saffron and use it in both sweet and savory items. It is often used to flavor rice; Italian Risotto Milanese, Spanish Paella, Bouillabaisse in France, Biryani in India, Thai saffron rice, and on and on. The flavor is difficult to describe, is is buttery and some say has a honey-like taste, though I don’t think so. It has a deep and subtle flavor and is best used in mild tasting things, which is why it is so often used to flavor rice, chicken and mild vegetables.
Most Saffron comes from Spain and Iran, though it is indigenous to Asia. It comes from the stigma of the crocus plant, and needs to be hand harvested. It takes 14,000 stigma to yield an ounce of saffron which is why it is so costly. I was sure I would be able to get some at a great bargain last year when I traveled to Indonesia, but I was told that the saffron sold there was poor quality, and often not really saffron, but safflower stigma. Saffron generally costs between $8.00 and $9.00 per gram (about 1/3 of an ounce). If you see it much cheaper, beware, it is probably not real saffron, and though it will give your dish the characteristic yellow color, you won’t get the rich distinctive flavor. Here in the US you will not find Iranian Saffron, make sure to look for Spanish saffron.
Many years ago I was attending the Fancy Food Show in NYC. As I walked by an empty, unused booth I saw a small box of saffron (about an ounce of it) sitting on the counter with nothing else there. I was really tempted to take it, I knew it was worth a lot of money. I stood next to it for a while, and no one came by to retrieve it. I decided I would take a lap around the entire show, and if I came back and it was still there I would claim it. When I returned about forty minutes later it was still there, and so I took it home and enjoyed it for many months. If it was yours, and you came back for it, I apologize, but I did really treasure it.
Saffron cauliflower is a particular favorite of mine. The flavors go so well together, and the cauliflower turns a beautiful golden color. It also makes a lovely äioli to put on fish or vegetables, or even a sandwich. If you are going to use it in something cold you need to steep the saffron, then cool that infusion before mixing the sauce. It isn’t difficult to find recipes using saffron, when I checked on Epicurious I found 275!
If you enjoy saffron I hope I’ve reminded you how wonderful it is, and inspired you to make something with it. If you’ve never had it, I urge you to try it! It is not hard to come by, most grocery store have it in the spice aisle. It is often in narrow glass vials, or tiny bubble packages. Do yourself a favor, and don’t look at the price. Make yourself a dinner of Risotto Milanese, and a salad of bitter greens and think about how inexpensive this dinner is compared to any meat centered meal.
I’d love to hear about your favorite uses of saffron, and if you’re trying it for the first time, please let me know if you like it!
9/9/2013 (Happy Birthday to my brother John!)