One of the neatest "thank you" gifts I have ever received from one of my authors was a tiny jar of greek saffron. I had never used the spice before in my own cooking, and for good reason. It is without question, the world's most expensive spice by weight and it is so rare and precious that it is seriously being touted as an alternative to opium crop in drug cultivating regions, especially Afghanistan.
Actual saffron comes from the thin and delicate red stigmas of the crocus flower, which must be manually extracted. Just a pound of dry saffron requires some 50,000 flowers! That is an entire football field of crocuses. The largest saffron cultivator today is Iran, but it is native to Southeast Asia and was first commercially cultivated by the Greeks. Spain is also a significant cultivator of the spice today, and there is a bit of cultivation in the United States and New Zealand. It has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, fabric dye, even medicine over the centuries, and today (unless you a practitioner of ancient medicine), the best quality saffron is saved for cooking.
Because of its preciousness, I feel that recipes that really immerse the dish in the flavor of this rare spice is the best. No sprinkling on top or using as a garnish in this instance. It has an earthy, slightly sweet, almost grass/hay-like flavor, but in deliciously unexpected way. Perhaps it is because saffron is still a relatively rare treat for my palate, but it truly does taste exotic to me in a way few things do, allowing me to picture myself in some exotic suq or bazaar, or soaking up some sunshine on the Mediterranean.
Since my saffron was specifically Greek saffron, and I have been on a huge Greek kick as of lately (both as a possible honeymoon destination and also because the latest issue of Saveur features Greek cuisine), I specifically sought out Greek recipes that incorporated saffron. The most popular one was for saffron rice, variations of which are also present in southeast Asian, Chinese, Indiana, Iranian and other middle Eastern dishes. This is one of the few times I made rice without my trusty cooker, so truly a momentous event! I was extremely pleased with this dish. It is simple, very easy to make and intensely flavorful. I think next time, I will add even more saffron to really give it color and kick!
About 25 saffron strands
1/2 cup of hot water
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of basmati rice
2 1/2 cups of water
salt to taste
Soak the saffron in the hot water for 10-15 minutes until completely plump and waterlogged. Rinse (and re-rinse) your rice in a bowl under warm water until it runs clear. Rinse again under a shot of cold water and drain. Heat your olive oil in a saucepan and add the rice. Sautee rice slowly until it becomes translucent. And the remaining 2 1/2 cups of water and salt and bring to a boil and then add in the saffron infusion.
Stir and cover tightly and then leave to simmer on a VERY low heat for about 20 minutes. Too hot and you will burn your rice. After about 20 minutes, craters will form on the surface. Place a piece of cheesecloth or a thin (clean) dishtowel over the top of the pot and then cover again with the pot lid and leave in a corner of the stove to rest for another 10-15 minutes. The cloth will absorb the steam from the rice and allow the grains to separate while also allowing them to absorb every last bit of flavor.
I think next time I might sprinkle some green peas and maybe even some sliced cashews on top...
Sound tasty? Here are two other saffron recipes to try when you get your hands on this incredible spice. Saffron Butternut Squash Soup from scratch and if you are feeling really ambitious, this recipe I saw on Guardian UK, saffron cous-cous, chickpea and lentil salad.