Dreams of Saffron

Saturday, October 1, 2011

   I remember the first time I heard of saffron. I was in my early teens and reading about the crocus plant, mostly because I had one that appeared to be floundering just a bit. In the midst of my research to find a cure for my pretty flowers, I read about how the prized crocus plant is grown in large fields and their stamens- just two per plant- are painstakingly harvested by hand and sold as the (understandably expensive) spice saffron. This spice is simply beautiful: tangled tendrils of bright yellow-orange threads, appearing light as air, something that belongs in possession of a fairy.

   I never cooked with the spice, partly because of its price and partly because I'd never tasted it before and therefore had little cause to crave it. Then, last week, Steve and I had Mexican night at a good friends house and since they were making amazing sounding toastadas, I wanted to contribute something just as tasty and beautiful. Enter Spanish Rice, stage left.

   It came together surprisingly fast- I collected the ingredients, followed the recipe, and we were all rewarded with a confetti of delicious, beautiful yellow rice. The flavor of saffron is extremely difficult to describe. It is complex, earthy and maybe slightly sweet, but the way it saturates this dish is a delicate and yet commanding complexity.

   Long story short: suck it up and buy yourself a spice jar of this stuff. A little goes a long way, the jar will last a long time, and it's just plain worth it.

   As a bonus, I celebrate my continued love affair with cabbage by sharing my new favorite recipe starring that handsome ball of greenery- smoky coleslaw. I invite you to eat it straight from the bowl, a bright and fresh dish that stands as a main course all its own, as long as you love the cabbage as much as it deserves. I sure did.

Yellow Rice
   Adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

3 cups chicken stock
Large pinch saffron
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cups long or medium grain white rice
Salt, to taste
1 tomato, cored, seeded and chopped
1 dried bay leaf
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
Chopped fresh parsley, to finish

   Place the saffron and stock in a small pot and bring to a simmer. While that comes to a simmer, put the butter and oil in a medium sized heavy bottomed pot or dutch oven and heat over medium heat. When butter has melted, add onion and red pepper and cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent.
   Stir in garlic and rice and cook until rice is just beginning to brown slightly and is toasty fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add tomato, bay leaf, peas and stock with saffron. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring once in a while, for about 15 minutes.
   Once most of the liquid has absorbed, turn the heat off and allow to sit another ten minutes. Remove bay leaf, and taste some rice. If they are still slightly crunchy in the middle, add another 1/2 cup of stock and allow to rest another ten minutes. Do this until the rice is perfectly tender, and adjust the salt along the way.
   Garnish with chopped parsley and serve to your eager and soon to be quite pleased quests!

Smoky Coleslaw

1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon adobo sauce (from a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce- place the remaining peppers and sauce in an airtight container and it will keep for a month in the fridge)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups finely sliced green or read cabbage
1 bunch radishes, julienned
1/2 bunch chopped cilantro

   In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the garlic, adobo sauce, lime juice, sugar and salt. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add the cabbage, radishes and cilantro and toss thoroughly to coat evenly. You can eat this right away or allow it to sit for a half hour or so to tenderize. Either way, it's delicious!


  1. is it strange i feel bad for the saffron, after you told the story of only 2 per flower having to be plucked?!

  2. Aw, Nina, you have a heart of gold! It is kind of a sad story... but it ends with a beautiful, tasty dish so all is well! Miss you