Lora has great confidence in me. She was so pleased with the Matar Paneer recipe she asked what I can do with saffron rice.
Buoyed by her enthusiasm, I headed to the Indian specialty shop and searched for saffron. There was none on the shelves. When I inquired if they had any, the clerk rummaged about under the counter and after a minute of rustling, handed me a plastic box that would barely hold a quarter. It contained a single gram of saffron threads and cost $4. Affordable in small quantities, by the pound this stuff makes solid gold and platinum look cheap.
Fortunately, with saffron a little goes a very long way.
Not wanting to waste the world’s most expensive spice, I turned to cyber-friend and food writer, Monica Bhide. Author of Modern Spice and spice columnist for the Washington Post, Bhide gave me a crash course on saffron. She says the best saffron comes from Spain, but regardless of your source:
- Always buy saffron strands, never powdered saffron.
- Accept no substitutes. Saffron in unique and although turmeric may be similar in colour, the taste is not the same.
- Look for bright red saffron. The darker, the better. If the strands are dull the spice is old and won’t be flavourful.
- Smell the saffron before you use it. It should have a strong, floral aroma. No smell? Bhide says, “It’s dead. Throw it away.”
Once you’ve bought this pricey spice, how to you get the most out of it?
- Don’t use too much. “Three strands per person should be enough,” Bhide says. “More and it will be bitter.”
- Dissolve it before using it. Saffron is water soluble so soak it in water or milk before using it to get the most out of the spice.
- Store it in a cool, dark place. If kept in the fridge, Bhide says it will keep for a couple of years — if you haven’t used it all up before then.
- Handle saffron carefully. Because it’s water soluble, don’t let anything wet touch the unused strands. Remove saffron from the box with dry fingers or a clean, dry spoon. Bhide also warns against using an already spice-coated spoon. “Give saffron the respect of having its own spoon,” she says.
Keep these points in mind and you’ll get your money’s worth out of each tiny box of saffron.
Do spices get you all hot under the collar? If so, you’ll be happy to know I’m giving away a copy of Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and Monica is providing the lucky winner a free 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about Indian cuisine. How’s that for a sweet deal?
To enter, just leave a comment describing a creative use of saffron. It might be your own recipe or one you’ve tried elsewhere. Put some thought into it since the winner won’t be random. Monica Bhide herself will judge your entries and select the winner based on your answers. Contest closes on Sunday, November 29th.
Any way, back to Lora’s saffron rice. You can get fancy by cooking the rice in chicken broth and adding sauteed onions and peas. But if you’re new to the taste of saffron, it’s best to keep it simple. Here’s an ultra-simple saffron rice recipe to get you started.
- 1 generous pinch saffron threads
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 3 cups water (in addition to the water above)
- pinch salt
- Soak saffron in 1/2 cup water for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Heat oil in a sauce pan that has a lid.
- Fry the rice for a few minutes in the oil over medium heat. The oil will initially turn the grains translucent. Fry until most of them turn opaque again. Do not brown the rice.
- Add the saffron water, additional water and salt. Stir.
- Put the lid on the pot.
- Turn the heat to low, set the timer for 18 minutes. Do not, repeat, do not lift the lid. Don’t peek to see how it’s coming along. Just leave it be.
- When the timer goes, remove the pot from the heat. Give the rice a quick stir and put the lid back on. Let it sit another 5 minutes.
- Fluff with a fork and serve.