With the warming days of spring moving quickly toward summer, I start to think of ways to refresh my cooking. After a long, cold winter of hearty soups and stews, thick soups and warming grain, bean and vegetable dishes, I want light, fresh, crisp and richly flavored foods to carry me into the warm sunny days to come. One of the ways that I keep things interesting is to “spice things up a bit.” And while there are lots of wonderful strongly flavored spices to add sparkle to any dish, spring calls for delicacy…for subtle nuance. My choice? Saffron…
A variety of crocus, saffron is said to have originated in Asia Minor. The stigmas and flowers of this particular crocus were used as both a seasoning and natural coloring agent. Saffron is said to be the most ancient of all spices, dating back to about 1500 BC. Used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, saffron was introduced to Spain in the 8th century by the Moors. The widespread use of saffron did not occur until the 11th century by the Crusaders.
Of the various strains of saffron available to us, ‘sativus’ is the most highly prized, grown in various parts of the world, including Greece, Italy, South America and the United States. The price of saffron, per ounce, matches that of pure gold in many parts of the world.
Saffron crocuses are purplish, red-veined flowers on plants that grow to about 6 inches in height. Their three orange-brown stigmas are hand-harvested and dried. With a pungent aroma and a hot, bitter flavor, it takes about 100,000 flowers to produce a scant pound of saffron. As a result, pure saffron is often mixed with safflower blossoms, arnica petals and marigold flowers or mixed with water or oil to increase its weight.
To ensure that you are getting pure saffron, purchase the whole stigmas instead of the powder. The best saffron is orange in color and has a warm, spicy flavor. To maintain freshness, store saffron away from direct sunlight, in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Use saffron sparingly in cooking…a small pinch added at the beginning of cooking is enough to flavor an entire dish. A staple of Arabic and Indian cooking, saffron is used to flavor soups, stews, curries, rice…even pastries…and now enjoys wide appeal in Mediterranean cooking as well.
Said to be a digestive and stomach aid, saffron is also used to stimulate menstruation and relieve indigestion.
Here is one of my favorite recipes using saffron. You should not that this sensational seasoning is great any time of year…any time you’re looking to gently spice things up!