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Saffron: red gold

Posted in Food & Entertaining

Risotto is the dish I most commonly put on the dinner table when I don’t have much time. As long as I have arborio rice, stock (veggie or chicken), Parmesan and any other ingredients to throw in, mainly in the form of vegetables, I can have dinner ready in 20 minutes or so, having dirtied only one pot.

Saffron risotto, that Milanese staple which is usually made with saffron and bone marrow, is one of my favorites. Most people cooking at home will dispense with the bone marrow and just enrich the risotto with a meat broth and a hefty helping of Parmesan. But you do need good saffron which, here in the States, is hard to come by. The pitiful stuff found in supermarkets is a pale cousin of what saffron should really taste like.

As the best saffron comes from Iran and Afghanistan, which have the perfect climate for it, Middle Eastern stores are a good source of saffron. But not every city has a Middle Eastern community. Enter Rumi Spice.

A friend gave me a tiny container of Rumi Saffron a few weeks ago, gifting it to me as if it were rare gold. Last night I used some to make risotto, and I understood why. It had been quite some time since I experienced threads so fragrant, which resulted in a deep yellow risotto that really tasted like saffron.

Rumi Spice, named after the 13th century Persian poet, is the brainchild of a team of US military veterans who partnered with a lawyer who worked for the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Program. According to their website: Rumi sources saffron from local Afghan farms and employs more than 300 women in Herat, Afghanistan to hand-harvest the delicate crimson stigmas of the flowers. Committed to empowering Afghan women and bolstering the country’s economy, Rumi reinvests back into agricultural and manufacturing infrastructure.

Saffron is none other than the interior threads of the saffron crocus flowers. It’s harvested by hand: the flowers are taken from the field in the early morning as soon as they open and then transported to a facility where the three stigmas (attached to the crocus by yellow filaments called styles) are hand-separated from the blossoms (you can see why women’s hands are more suited to this task). It takes 450,000 stigmas (or 150,000 blossoms) to make a kilogram of saffron.

Saffron crocus flower

According to the folks at Rumi, when buying saffron you should look for:
Fine and evenly sized threads
• Threads with thin yellow tendrils on one end and a trumpet like flute on the other
• Deep red color
• Dry and brittle texture; moisture and flexibility are bad signs
• Strong hay-like fragrance; even through the plastic or box
• Longer threads, which indicate that the saffron hasn’t been roughly handled
• Emission of a bright yellow dye when steeped in water

Aside from risotto and paella, I throw saffron in most of my fish stews and some cakes. And when the mood strikes me, and I am in the neighborhood, I will pop into my favorite Persian ice-cream store and get a saffron cone.

Half a gram of saffron from Rumi will set you back $8.00, plus shipping. That would be enough for a risotto for four people, with some left over for another dish. Or, if you need just a sprinkle, you can probably get four uses out of the tiny box – that is how potent it is. But, wherever you are, choose your saffron carefully: it can elevate a run of the mill dish to near perfection.

All images taken from Rumi Spice website – I did not get paid for this post – I truly love their saffron.

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  1. Carissimo, ma il vero zafferano è straordinario

    April 29, 2017
    • E’ vero ma ero stufa dello zafferano insapore da supermercato.

      May 2, 2017
    • So welcome…while I am out of ideas for tonight’s dinner…or out of energy.

      April 28, 2017
  2. Snap, risotto is also my go-to quick supper. Last week my husband phoned at 5pm to say he was bringing a colleague home for dinner. Luckily I’d been to the market that day and had a wonderful selection of mushrooms – so mushroom risotto with a green salad was on the menu! BTW when making it as well as the stock I often use half a glass of white wine – is that a very un-Italian thing to do?

    Did you know that there is a town in England called Saffron Walden. During the Roman occupation of Britain that area was used to cultivate saffron as it was much used in Roman cooking!

    April 27, 2017
    • It’s THE Italian thing to do? Olive oil and onions first, then rice and then wine before moving on to the stock.
      What did those Romans know about cultivating saffron in rainy Britain? Clearly, it did not work.

      April 28, 2017

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