The flavor of saffron is difficult to describe, but its presence in food is unmistakable. slightly bitter, intensely aromatic, and a little bit sweet, once you taste it you'll never forget it. Turmeric and ground safflower petals can tint food the same golden hue, but there's no substitute for the taste of true saffron.
The spice itself is the stigma of a fall-blooming crocus that's native to the eastern Mediterranean and southern Europe. Today, saffron is cultivated mainly in Spain, Iran, and northern India.
Because it's harvested and processed entirely by hand, as it has been for centuries, saffron is one of the costliest of spices - over $200 per pound.
The uncomplicated flavor of starchy foods, such as grains, pasta, and potatoes, provides an ideal background for saffron's own exotic taste. Add saffron to a broth for steaming couscous, and you'll infuse the finished dish with its delicate fragrance. Risotto Milanese, the classic Italian rice dish, gets its golden color and irresistible aroma from saffron. Throughout Scandinavia, saffron is used to season breads and cakes. And, of course, no paella or bouillabaisse is complete without saffron.
For even color and maximum flavor, don't add saffron directly; instead, first make a reduced saffron infusion.
~ Crumble the threads slightly and lightly toast them in a dry pan over very low heat. Heating the saffron liquefies its color- and flavor-bearing oils and makes for a more flavorful infusion.
~ Next, add a little hot water, bring to a boil, and reduce the mixture slightly. Add this infusion to whatever you're cooking; there's no need to strain the infusion.
This technique is useful when combining saffron with acidic ingredients, such as vinegar, lemon juice, and very tart wines, which inhibit its ability to color.
Saffron's high price and intense flavor dictate that it be used sparingly; ¼ tsp is enough to flavor 1 cup of uncooked rice, enough for 4 average servings. Too much saffron is not a good thing; it will leave your food with an unpleasant medicinal taste.
Most saffron in North America comes from the Mancha region of Spain and is graded according to the ratio of red to yellow threads. The best and costliest saffron has the fewest yellow threads. The finest-grade Spanish saffron, called coupe, is rarely available in our markets. We do enjoy a plentiful supply of "superior" grade Spanish saffron, which typically contains a red-to-yellow ration of 10 to 1.
The most prize saffron comes from the Kashmir region of India, but because of political strife in the area, very little Kashmir saffron gets to American markets. The best kashmir saffron, Mogra Cream, is pure vermilion with no yellow threads. Penzeys Ltd Spice House (414-574-0277) is the only source of Kashmir Mogra Cream saffron in this country.
Powdered saffron, which is less expensive than the whole threads, isn't worth the savings. Like any ground spice, saffron's flavor and aroma fade quickly when crushed. Also, unscrupulous traders sometimes combine powdered saffron with turmeric and other inferior ingredients.
Saffron is a seasonal crop and is best shortly after the harvest in the fall. Even though saffron is partially dried when it's processed, it should still feel soft and moist, never brittle or hard. To keep saffron moist and fragrant, transfer it to an airtight glass jar and store it in the freezer.
Submitted By DIANE LAZARUS On 11-11-95
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