Many years ago, I was introduced to one of Spanish cuisine's most wonderful dishes, paella. I was, at the same time, unavoidably introduced to one of the world's most interesting and most expensive spices - saffron.
I say "unavoidably" because real paella cannot be made without saffron.
Saffron is the dried stigma of the saffron crocus. It's expensive because a great number of stigmas from a great number of crocuses need to be collected to obtain a useful amount of the spice. Just think about the labour involved in that venture.
Saffron has a long and fascinating history as seasoning, dye, perfume and medicine (or medicinal ingredient.) In ancient times it was widely used to cure anything and everything.
The Egyptians used it to cure stomach pains; Cleopatra used it in her baths for cosmetic reasons and to make her feel more amorous. Alexander the Great used saffron to heal his wounds. Romans liked to sprinkle saffron on the streets when Emperor Nero did a walkabout. The saffron would mask the odour of the streets, and - more to the point - the "rabble" in the streets.
In culinary endeavours, the court of King Henry VIII used saffron to flavour the king's favourite dishes. As a matter of fact, when King Henry discovered the ladies of court were using his saffron to colour their hair, he quickly stopped the practice. He was concerned that using saffron as a colouring agent might lead to a shortage of the spice and possibly deprive him of the pleasure of enjoying it in his stew. Quite right.
Classic saffron dishes
Back in the '70s, two delicious classic dishes gave me my introduction to saffron as a cooking ingredient. They were Spanish paella (as mentioned) and French bouillabaisse. Both dishes require saffron. Otherwise, they don't taste as good and aren't authentic.
Paella is a rice-based peasant dish containing meat or fish or both. Saffron colours the rice beautifully and also gives it a unique flavour. Bouillabaisse is a famous French stew from the Mediterranean.
Again, it is made unique by the fragrance and slightly metallic taste of saffron.
Most chefs I know enjoy working with saffron, despite its price (about $10 for 6 or 7 good pinches.) Gregory Bersinski, executive chef of The Vault, uses saffron in many dishes, like risotto, for example.
Recently while relaxing in his garden amongst flowers and herbs he'd grown, he offered some advice on how to use saffron in cooking.
"What I do is, I take a few threads of saffron and I put them in, say, chicken stock. You let it sit in the warm chicken stock for a while and that seems to take some of the edge off the medicinal flavour.
Then you put the chicken stock in your risotto or whatever. It gives everything a nice yellow colour, just like that yellow flower."
Saffron can be purchased in different forms. Usually it comes as dried, deeply coloured red threads. If, by the way, the threads are not somewhat faded at the ends, that means the threads have been dyed and are of inferior quality. Generally, the deeper the colour, the more intense the flavour will be.
Powdered saffron is also available, although I don't recommend it. Often it's cut with turmeric and more of it is required to achieve the same taste as with saffron threads.
Saffron is cultivated in several countries. I've purchased saffron from Spain, Turkey and even America (grown in Pennsylvania.) My favourite is the Spanish. I would encourage you to try this ancient spice for yourself. There's no better way to start than with filling paella or fragrant Mediterranean seafood stew.
This is the recipe I use to make paella for six. In addition to flavour, the saffron gives the dish a lovely yellow colour. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice brings out extra flavour.
Grape seed oil
Spanish olive oil
Salt and pepper
6 skinless chicken thighs (bone in)
1 lb. mild Italian spiced sausages
1 large Spanish onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
4 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
3 cups short grain rice
7 cups warm chicken broth
Generous pinch saffron (1 tsp. approx.)
Dozen live mussels
1 lb. shelled large raw shrimp
1/2 cup of frozen peas (thawed)
Steep saffron in half a cup of hot chicken broth and set aside. Dust raw chicken with mixture of paprika, oregano, salt and pepper. Cut sausages into 1-inch pieces. Set burner on medium. In a very, very large shallow fry pan, heat enough grape seed oil to coat bottom of pan. Fry sausage pieces until cooked. Remove from pan to large dish. Fry chicken thighs until browned and cooked through. Remove to dish with sausage. Fry chopped onion and garlic until garlic is golden. Add 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley and stir through. Wait 60 seconds. Add rice, warm broth, steeped saffron, pepper and salt. Stir. Allow to cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cooked chicken and sausage. Poke the raw shrimp and mussels into the rice to cook. Sprinkle green peas on top. Continue cooking for approximately 15 minutes. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon over all. Sprinkle with remaining parsley. Drizzle tablespoon of olive oil over top. Decorate edge with quartered lemons. Allow guests to dish up their own portion, making sure they add a lemon wedge to the plate for more juicing during eating.