Native to the Mediterranean region, saffron is known throughout the world as a precious, expensive spice which can cost $500 or more a pound! Its common name is derived from the Latin safranum, which means “yellow,” and has been cultivated for over 4,000 years, included in the cuisines of all cultures plus used for everything from medicine to dye. Nero had it sprinkled on the streets of Rome for his entry into the city, Alexander the Great used it in his bath as a curative for battle wounds, Cleopatra believed that it would make lovemaking more pleasurable plus others wove it into textiles, offered it to divinities and used it as a natural yellow dye. Once grown in Saffron Walden in Great Britain and sold in penny packets as recently as 50 years ago, Europeans brought it to America where it has been cultivated by the Pennsylvania Dutch since the 1700’s. Today Spain is considered the premium source of saffron, where it is called “red gold.”
Saffron comes from the domesticated autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, which produces grass-like vertical green leaves either before, after or at the same time as the fragrant mauve and purple blooms seen for only a brief two-week period in October. The flowers have a sweet scent and each contains only three crimson stigmas which become thread-like saffron. No wonder it is so expensive since it takes over 70,000 flowers to make one pound of this spice and every step of the process must be done by hand! This crocus is hardy in zones 6-10 and may be grown in full sun and well-drained soil in a location sheltered from wind and frost. Saffron grows from corms which can be planted in June 3-4 inches deep to produce from two to twelve flowers only after a hot, dry summer. Mark the spot, as corms are dormant most of the time and vunerable to over planting or inadvertent weeding. Each corm reproduces up to 10 “cormlets” that must be dug up, broken apart and re-planted every 2-3 years after the foliage dies back in spring. Harvest flowers early in the day, remove the stigmas by hand and dry over slow heat – a simple fruit dehydrator set at 100 degrees is an efficient and effective home method.
Since saffron is so expensive, it’s fortunate that it only takes a few threads to add color to a dish and impart a warm, aromatic and pleasantly bitter flavor. Most recipes call for a “good pinch” or about ½ teaspoon to lend a delicate but distinctive flavor – too much and you’ll wind up with a medicinal taste. Because of the cost, it is sometimes adulterated with cheaper substitutes, including safflower and calendula, so make sure there is no yellow color – good saffron may be orange or red but not yellow. Opt for threads over available powder for the best flavor and store in a well-sealed container away from heat and light. Although best known for its use with rice, saffron combines well with honey, pears, rosemary, garlic and onions plus ginger and cardamom. It is especially delicious in soup, chicken, tomato and eggplant dishes, sauces for fish, all types of potatoes, vanilla or honey ice cream, sweet yeast breads, pear and apple desserts, butter, shortbread cookies and even tea.
Soak saffron threads in warm liquid
lightly toast in a dry pan for a few minutes
to release aroma and color
before adding to a recipe
1 cut up chicken
2 c chopped onions
1 c diced carrots
3/4 c diced celery
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4tsp crumbled saffron threads
2oz dried wide egg noodles
2 c frozen corn kernels
2Tbs minced fresh parsley
Place chicken pieces in a large pot with enough water to cover, bring to a boil and then simmer 20 minutes. Remove chicken, cool then remove meat and chill broth. Melt butter, add onions, carrots, celery, garlic and thyme, cover and cook until vegetables are soft over low heat. Add fat skimmed broth and bring to a boil, then add saffron and noodles and simmer 5 mins. Add chicken and corn, then parsley and season with salt and pepper.
ORANGE YOGURT CAKE
1c fresh orange juice
1/8 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
1 ½tsp baking powder
1 egg white
1/4c plain low-fat yogurt
6Tbs olive oil
3Tbs sweet orange marmalade
Bring juice to simmer then stir in saffron and steep 10 mins. Mix sugar, egg and egg white until thickened then add yogurt, beating well. Gradually add oil and juice until well blended, then add flour, baking powder and salt and beat until blended. Spoon batter into greased 9” round cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 40 mins or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool for 5 mins then remove from pan and cool completely. To serve, warm marmalade and spread over top of cake.
3 c water
1-1/2 c whole milk
12 saffron threads
2 cardamom seeds, crushed
1Tbs green or black loose leaf tea
Soak the saffron for a few minutes in a small amount of warm water. Combine with water, milk and cardamom and bring to a boil, then simmer 5 minutes. Add tea and steep for an additional 3-5 mins. Strain and sweeten with honey.
“And God said, See I have given you every herb
that yields seed which is on the face of the earth. . . “