To add extraordinary color to an otherwise-pale sea of rice, nothing rivals the vividness of the world’s most expensive spice, saffron. Harvested from fall-blooming lavender crocuses whose delicate stigmas explode into deep gold color and deep, earthy, flavor when added to food, saffron can only be gathered by hand. An acre of crocuses yields roughly 10 lbs. of spice, making it both rare and almost prohibitively costly. (Here at Mississippi Market, a 1.5-inch-square cellophane packet of saffron weighing 0.018 oz., or 0.5 g, costs $9.95. Look for the glass jars in the Wellness Department’s spice collection.)
Hmmmm, you say, Why would I want to spend so much on so little?
How about celebrating global culinary traditions? Saffron is thought to have first been harvested and exported from Persia (now Iraq), from where it made its way with the invading Moghuls into northern India (Kashmir now produces some of the world’s finest saffron). It now graces biryanis and the pilafs shared by northern India, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Trade between northern India and China by way of Tibet brought saffron to eastern Asia, where it seems to have played chiefly medicinal and coloring roles. Later, it made its way west into Europe, first through Roman trade, then with Arabs settling in Spain in the tenth century CE, and soon thereafter with Europeans returning from the Crusades, who planted crocus corms westward as far as the British Isles. Spanish paella, Milanese risotto, and a number of northern European sweet cakes are flavored and colored with saffron. Fortunately, a little goes a very long way.
Elizabeth David, in English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), offers a fine description of England’s once-extensive saffron industry. She also reprints Hannah Glasse’s 1760 recipe from The Compleat Confectioner for a saffron cake. Besides the usual butter, eggs, sugar, yeast, and milk, it calls for cloves, mace, cinnamon, rosewater, and saffron—no doubt a vividly golden cake, and one that reflected the enduring medieval fondness for high spicing.
Probably more to current taste is David’s recipe for a Milanese Risotto (Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, 1970), which calls for 1 cup of arborio rice, 2 oz. of butter, 1 small onion or shallot, 2–2 ¼ cups of chicken stock, “enough saffron filaments to cover a sixpence” (that would be about 3/4” in diameter), salt to taste, and 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan. Cook the dish as you would any risotto, first exercising the frugal saffron user’s practice of soaking the crimson threads in a little hot water or stock to draw out their maximal flavor and color.
Risotto, or a simple biryani, offers the newcomer to saffron a simply prepared introduction to this spice’s peculiarly musky, bitter flavor and shocking color.
SAFFRON-ORANGE RICE (ZARDA)
This is a much lighter and simpler rice dish using saffron than traditional biryanis. Like them, its origin is Persian; it was brought to northern India by the Moghuls. It’s fragrant and subtle, and it complements simply cooked summer vegetables and lightly seasoned grilled meats or marinated, grilled tofu.
Adapted from Maddhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian (Clarkson Potter, 1999).
1 tsp. saffron threads
2 Tbs. hot milk
4 Tbs. ghee or unsalted butter, melted
2 Tbs. whole raw cashews, split lengthwise
1 Tbs. blanched slivered almonds
1 c. basmati rice
1 Tbs. golden raisins
6 whole green cardamom pods
5 slices of dried orange skin
7 Tbs. white sugar
½ tsp. salt
- Preheat oven to 325° F.
- Soak saffron threads in very small bowl with milk for 2–3 hours.
- Wash rice until water is clear; drain. Put it in a bowl, add water to cover by 2”, and set aside for 30 minutes. Drain.
- Place ghee or butter in a heavy flame- and ovenproof pot and set on MEDIUM-HIGH. When fat is hot, add cardamom pods, cashews, almonds, and raisins. Stir until almonds become golden.
- Add rice and stir gently for a minute. Then add orange skin, sugar, saffron and milk, salt, and 1 1/3 c. water.
- Stir gently to mix and bring to boil. Cover, first with aluminum foil and then with a heavy lid, and place on middle rack of oven. Bake for 30 minutes.
- Stir gently, and then remove cardamom pods before serving.