I’m just mad about saffron / saffron’s mad about me.
I had a lot of great suggestions for this week’s post. Dee commented last week that I should try truffle oil, or truffles. My Mom suggested Herbs de Provence, or a Lavender Vinegar I got for Christmas (which I fully intend to use for something on the blog). Others said to try a more expensive cut of meat or seafood. And the suggestions of lemongrass or black garlic (which, I’m not sure what that is, to be honest) was tossed around, too.
But something about this notoriously expensive, and historically significant spice just struck me as awesome. (I think I do it on purpose, but I tend to pick things that involve a teensy bit of research.)
Saffron is native to Southwest Asia (aka the Middle East and the Mediterranean). It’s been used as paint, a health remedy, and of course a spice for over 3,500 years.
There are frescoes in Greece dating from at least 1100 B.C. (historians aren’t sure of the date) depicting saffron being harvested by a Minoan goddess. There are 50,000 year old cave paintings in modern-day Iraq that use saffron as paint to depict animals. The Sumerians used it in potions and herbal remedies.
Saffron is quite significant in South and East Asian culture and cuisine – and how it arrived there is up for dispute (Phoenicians, Persians, random traders). It was often used as offerings to the Buddha and Buddhist monks’ robes are dyed saffron. The color is very significant in Hinduism as well. In Spain and France it was used in cooking, and introduced by the Moors – and during the Plague it was used for more medicinal remedies.
Saffron is also quite expensive because the crop itself is very difficult to harvest. Each flower, a crocus, has only a few stigmas that have to be plucked by hand and are then toasted – the saffron.
This container was around $12.00. It’s about $500 per ounce (this was significantly less than an ounce, of course).
To give this fancy spice a try I used an America’s Test Kitchen recipe for Almost Hands-Free Saffron Risotto with Chicken and Peas. The wine, arborio rice, and Market Pantry peas felt pretty fancy, too.
Missing from the picture is butter, salt, and pepper. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget to add them.
Risotto is apparently quite labor intensive. And even this recipe – which is designed to reduce the amount of time spent stirring – was a bit complicated.
I borrowed a Dutch oven from my Mom (thanks!) and used that to brown the chicken breasts. At the same time I heated up my chicken stock and and water. I used my stock pot to boil the chicken broth and water because it was 6 cups of liquid and I was worried it might boil over in a smaller saucepan, mistake number 1 The stock pot was on a smaller burner so I think that may have affected how long it took to boil. Once the chicken breasts were browned they went into the broth to simmer until they were cooked through.
While the chicken was boiling, I heated the butter to cook my onions, garlic, and rice. This was mistake number 2 – I put all 4 tablespoons of butter in the pot – which helped soften the onions but . . . well more on that later.
Then in went the wine – stirring constantly. I think the key word in the recipe title is the “almost” part of the “hands-free”
The chicken took longer to cook than I thought – so the rice got a teensy bit mushy before I could add the warm stock & saffron. That simmered for about 18 minutes.
This was about a 1/4 teaspoon of saffron – about half of the spice jar.
Then a little more stock (with more constant stirring) followed by the parmesan and lemon. According to Cook’s Illustrated – it’s the stirring, that releases the starch from the rice, and makes risotto creamy. I was a little hesitant picking risotto, thinking there might be a cream sauce involved – but the only dairy here was the butter and the cheese.
Then I added a little more butter, the chicken, chives, parsley, and peas.
I’m sure I’ve had saffron before – but I truly can’t tell you what it tastes like. As it was cooking, there was a sweetness to the smell. When you eat it, there is an otherness to it, I’m not sure what it was, blending in with the chicken, and garlic.
I also over-buttered. The 4 tablespoons I mentioned at the beginning, used to soften the onion, was only supposed to be 2, with the remaining 2 coming in at the end. I may have killed the flavor of the spice a little, I’m not totally sure – I was pretty disappointed. I wasn’t sure if I could not add the butter – or how that would affect the risotto coming together.
I will say, it’s still pretty delicious: creamy, salty, with an interesting flavor. I kept tasting it to try and differentiate between the different flavors. I’d try it again – and I’d love to try saffron in something else, too.
Things I learned
- Read. The. Recipe. This happens so many times, and I did read it, over and over again but I still slipped up.
- Find a better way to chop onions. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know because when I chop onions I end up crying like I just marathonned Titanic, Bambi, Old Yeller, and the West Wing episode where Leo dies.
- Invest in (or borrow) a mid-sized sauce pan. Or split up the cooking time so I don’t have to use the tiny burners with my big stock pot.
What ingredient do you think is #fancy?
Come back next week to see Lisa exercise her mad knife skills with Knifework!