Meet Herb

"Do saffron next, mom. Saffron is different!" So said my daughter as I tried to decide which herb would be the focus of my next column. "Nobody uses saffron, but maybe if more people knew about it, they would."

And so, in the interests of the "generation gap" and the "edumacation" of the masses, this month's column directs its focus on saffron and the lovely crocus from whence it comes. Saffron is the stigma of the crocus -- not the spring harbinger but a variety that blooms in the fall. It's very labour-intensive to produce, needing a full acre of blooms to produce one pound of the delicate threads! That's tens of thousands of blooms, and all harvested by hand!

Saffron has a place of honour among my herbs of preference, I like to use it and am somewhat partial to its taste and colour. In order to be able to give you the full story, I did what I do best and referred to Penzey's for the last word on saffron info. Penzey's calls Spanish Saffron Superior Quality but says that the best saffron hails from Northern India and is called Kashmir "Mogra Cream" Saffron. They sell a 1/4 ounce of the Spanish at $31.95 USD and of the Kashmir at $41.95 USD. Don't let that scare you off though. A little saffron -- just a few strands -- goes a long way toward flavouring and colouring most any dish! Comparatively speaking, a pinch would cost approximately 50 cents and that's more than enough for most dishes. To give a really rich flavour, two pinches is plenty -- about a dollar's worth.

Saffron adds a distinctive aroma, a bitter, honey-like flavour and a strong, vibrant yellow colour to the foods to which it is added. Always store it in airtight containers away from light. I have sometimes bought mine in these cute little plastic boxes that are a translucent yellow colour and over-wrapped in yellow cellophane. They're about the size of an art eraser and are tied with a bright red string bow. They'd make a nice little gift for your favourite gourmet chef!

I've seen saffron available in two forms, powdered and strands. I use the strands exclusively as I have found that the powdered stuff loses its flavour and efficacy quickly. According to Penzey's, the powdered varieties are sometimes cut with turmeric or other spices.

When using saffron, first infuse some of the strands in a small amount of warm water for a half hour or so and then add that coloured liquid towards the end of the cooking time. Although the colouring is an important part of what saffron does for a dish, don't try to substitute other colouring spices such as turmeric, since the flavour of saffron is quite distinct and different from others.

Saffron is integral to the cooking of Spain and many other Mediterranean countries as well as the Middle East and India. It has an affinity for rice dishes, perhaps the most well known being the Spanish Paella and Italy's Risotto, but is also used in France's Bouillabaisse, and in Britain as a flavouring for cakes and breads.

Asian Chicken and Shrimp Soup

This recipe comes from Penzey's catalogue with some minor adjustments by yours truly. Perfect for summer meals, and any variation of vegetables works equally well; so it's a winner all 'round!
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1/2 - 1 lb. chicken, skinned, boned and cubed (I use white meat only)
  • 1 lb. small to medium shrimp (when I use small shrimp, I leave them whole)
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • 1 large pinch saffron threads
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp salt
  • 1 large ear of corn, kernels removed
  • 1 cup bean sprouts
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 medium leek, thinly sliced
  • 2 tsp peanut oil
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (I sometimes use Japanese Nanami Togarashi and just sprinkle to taste)
  • 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice (one lemon)

If you're using a powdered stock base or canned stock, omit the salt called for. Simmer the stock over medium heat with the lemon grass, ginger, white pepper, saffron strands and salt for 30 minutes. While that is happening, parboil the corn, sprouts, and peas, each individually, for no more than a minute or two, drain into a colander and set aside.

Shell and devein the shrimp and cut into pieces approximately the same size as the chicken (halves or so). Dust on both sides with the cayenne. Heat peanut oil in a skillet and sauté the leek and remove. Repeat the process for the chicken until not quite cooked through, and do the same for the shrimp.

Skim the lemon grass from the stock with a slotted spoon and add the chicken, shrimp and vegetables. Add lemon juice and heat through for five minutes. Taste and add the extra 1/2 tsp salt if necessary. Serve garnished with chopped chives.

  • Yields: 2 quarts of soup or 8 about servings
  • Preparation Time: 50 minutes

Mussel and Saffron Soup

When buying your mussels, make sure they're heavy and closed or close quickly when touched. If not, they're not fresh!
  • 1 kg fresh mussels
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 14oz can peeled plum tomatoes
  • two generous pinches saffron threads
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 150 ml dry white wine
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 150 ml 35% cream
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Scrub the mussels well and remove any beards. Rinse in cold water and place in a saucepan. Place over high heat for 2 - 3 minutes until the shells have just opened. Discard any that do not open. Remove from heat, remove mussels from their shells and reserve. Strain the liquid from the pot into a bowl.

Heat the oil in a deep, heatproof dish and sauté the onions and garlic over medium heat until soft and lightly coloured. Add the tomatoes with their juices, breaking them up slightly. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the saffron, thyme and wine and stir to mix well. Stir in the mussel liquor, taste and adjust the seasoning, using salt sparingly.

Five minutes before serving, add the reserved mussels to the soup with the cream. Stir to mix well, then reheat gently without allowing it to boil, until the mussels are heated through. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with crusty French bread.

  • Yields: 4 - 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: one hour

Saffron Cake

This is a traditional English cake recipe. The saffron adds a warm flavour as well as a lovely yellow colour.
  • 1/2 tsp saffron strands
  • 150 ml boiling water
  • 15 grams dry yeast
  • 150 ml warm milk
  • 1/4 cup fine sugar
  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 oz butter
  • 1 cup currants
  • grated rind of a lemon

Put the saffron into a small bowl with the boiling water and leave overnight.

Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and add 1/2 tsp sugar in a separate bowl and leave for approximately ten minutes or until frothy.

Sift the flour with the salt into a mixing bowl, add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until it resembles coarse bread crumbs. Stir in the currants, lemon rind and remaining sugar.

Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture and beat well to mix. Strain in the saffron and beat again.

Grease an 8in cake pan and pour batter into it. Cover loosely with a cloth and leave in a warm place to rise almost to the top of the pan. Bake in a preheated 400F oven for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350F and continue baking 30 minutes more without opening the oven door. Turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. Cut into slices and serve plain or buttered.

  • Yields: 1 round loaf
  • Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours plus overnight soaking

Well, that's it for another month! Keep those emails coming in. I love to hear from you and welcome your suggestions for future columns.