Saffron will cost you, but a pinch goes far

'Threads' of the exotic spice elevate the humblest of dishes to gourmet status

If the Brothers Grimm, those German tellers of tales and collectors of folklore, had been raised on bouillabaisse rather then bratwurst, they may have seen things a little differently. They might have had the diminutive rascal Rumpelstiltskin, for instance, spin gossamer threads of orange saffron rather than strands of gold to win the miller's daughter's first-born son.

And, monetarily, it wouldn't have been much of a stretch. Saffron is just as rare and, by weight, the most expensive of all spices.

Penzeys Spices of Brookfield, Wis., a preeminent purveyor of gourmet herbs and spices, offers 1/4-ounce packages of saffron from $42 to $58, depending on grade. That's not too surprising when you consider its source.

It is hand-plucked from a small, unassuming autumn-blooming flower native to Asia Minor, the Crocus sativus. And this demure, purple blossom is as miserly as King Midas. Each little flower, when open, reveals but three inch-long, thread-like stigmas. These "threads," which are not much longer than one of Charo's or Tammy Faye Bakker's eyelashes, are the much-valued saffron threads.

Fortunately, a small amount of saffron goes a long way. A pinch added to chicken stock, creamed soups, or sauces can raise the humblest of dishes to gourmet status.

Given its price, it's not surprising that saffron is usually sold in quantities of 1/4 grams, or less. A single gram of saffron can season about 40 servings of Saffron Rice.

After it is painstakingly harvested by scores of migrant workers, it is spread out to air dry in the sun for weeks before being packaged for sale.

We in the West are most familiar with saffron as a seasoning to an array of classic Mediterranean dishes such as Risotto alla Milanese, the bouillabaisse of Marseilles, or Spanish garlic soup, but over the centuries, it has also migrated north to Scandinavia as a flavoring for savory saffron buns. Saffron also appears as a prized addition to our gourmet pantry. And it hasn't been used only as a seasoning. In the past, Persians used the orange-red stigmas as a valued dye in their precious hand-woven carpets.

Although saffron may never take the place of French's yellow mustard on your kitchen shelf, a small vial of the exotic spice can bring a rare taste and sunny yellow color to even the simplest soup, white sauce, and even mayonnaise. Use it sparingly to bring a special flavor, aroma, and color to your table.

Shopping for saffron

Saffron is often sold in glass vials and is available in many large supermarkets, specialty food shops, and gourmet stores. Because of its high price, it is sometimes kept behind the counter. If you don't find it on the shelves, ask the store manager.

When purchasing saffron, buy it in thread form, not powdered. Powdered saffron is sometimes cut with other, cheaper ingredients like safflower, marigold, or turmeric, which impart color, but none of the pungent aroma and flavor. Beware of "Mexican saffron," as this is usually a false saffron and bears little resemblance to the real thing.

Most saffron in Western markets comes from the Novelda and Valencia areas of Spain. An acre of land devoted to saffron produces between 5 to 7 pounds of the spice. It takes approximately 75,000 stigmas or filaments to produce a pound of saffron.

Saffron should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place.

Chicken With Toasted Almonds and Saffron Cream

1 3- to 3-1/2-pound chicken, quartered

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon herbs de Provence

1 large pinch saffron threads (about 1/4 teaspoon)

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons ketchup

*1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

Sprinkle chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Heat butter and olive oil over low to medium heat in a skillet large enough to hold chicken pieces in one layer. When butter is melted, add chicken parts and saute, turning to brown on both sides - about 5 to 7 minutes on each side. When chicken is browned, carefully pour off and discard most of the fat. With heat on low, stir in herbs de Provence, saffron, cream, and ketchup until blended and smooth.

Cover skillet and cook over low heat until chicken is tender when tested with a fork, about 30 minutes. Turn chicken once while cooking. Remove chicken to a large platter and sprinkle with optional toasted almonds before serving. (For a thicker sauce, transfer cooked chicken to a warm oven, and simmer sauce, uncovered, 10 to 15 minutes, or until thickened to your liking.)

Serves 4.

* To toast the slivered almonds, place them in a single layer in a small frying pan - without butter or oil. Turn heat on low to medium and toast almonds, stirring constantly, until lightly browned; watch carefully as they can burn easily.

Classic Saffron Rice

1 tablespoon butter

1-1/2 tablespoons minced onion

1 cup white rice (basmati, if available)

2 cups chicken broth

1 pinch saffron threads

Heat butter over low to medium heat in a 1-quart sauce pan. Add onion and sauté, stirring until onion is soft and translucent. Add rice, broth, and saffron; stir and cover. Cook over low heat for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid. Makes a fine accompaniment to curried chicken or shrimp.

Serves 4.

Saffron Lemon Pound Cake

The following recipe is from 'Secrets of Saffron: the Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice,' by Pat Willard (Beacon Press, $23). Ms. Willard says of this dessert offering, 'This is my winter cake. I usually make the first one sometime after the heat goes on for the first time in the house, and always have it around for Christmas guests.' The recipe makes one large tube-sized cake or two loaf cakes.

For the glaze:

1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 small pinch (about 15 to 20 threads) saffron

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind (zest)

For the cake:

Fine dried bread crumbs

1 cup milk

1 large pinch saffron (about 60 threads)

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound unsalted (sweet) butter at room temperature

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind (zest)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch tube pan or two loaf pans. Coat the bottom and sides with the bread crumbs and set aside.

Stir all ingredients for the glaze into a small bowl and set aside. For the cake, heat the milk in a small saucepan and when hot (but not boiling), remove from the heat and stir in the saffron. Set aside for about 20 minutes. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together; then beat the eggs in, one at a time. Alternately fold the dry ingredients and the milk into the batter. Stir the grated lemon zest into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake for 1-1/4 hours or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Immediately remove cake from pan. Place the cake on a rack over a bowl, and pour the glaze over it until all the glaze is absorbed.

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