The most expensive spice in the world — saffron — has many benefits and a unique flavour to offer.
Saffron is the most valuable medicinal food product because of its importance in Iran’s agricultural economy. The dried stigmas of the plant Crocus sativus (Iridaceae) are processing to produce saffron as a well-known spice which has some other importance in pharmaceutics, cosmetics, perfumery, and dye-producing industries. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. It’s derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus and has a deep auburn colour. It takes 250,000 hand-picked stigmas to make just half a kilo of saffron, hence the high price. Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way.
Saffron can be bought whole in threads or strands (stigmas) or in powdered form. Spanish and Kashmiri saffron are reputed to be among the best-quality. Floral and pleasantly bitter, saffron is reminiscent of tobacco, hay, and cedar, with nuances of pepper, citrus seed, and menthol. Well worth the expense, saffron brings unparalleled flavor to a wide variety of dishes. In Iran, which produces more than 80 per cent of the 250 tons produced worldwide each year, saffron is omnipresent, in stews, kebabs, rice dishes and sweets. It is often said that saffron is worth its weight in gold because it is so difficult and labor-intensive to cultivate and harvest.
How should I use it?
Grind 2 tsp saffron threads, along with a sugar cube or a pinch of coarse salt, to a powder with a mortar and pestle or a spice mill to draw out flavor and colour. Then add ¼ cup warm water and let it cool. This is the vibrant elixir to use in your paella, buttery saffron rice, and desserts like saffron-rose water brittle.
How do I store saffron?
Keep threads in a cool, dry, dark place (you can put it in the freezer for up to a year). Saffron water can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to three weeks. Unless you use saffron frequently it is best to purchase small amounts at a time.
Properly stored you can keep saffron for minimally three years. It won't ‘go bad’ but the flavor will diminish as it ages.
Chili garlic Prawn tempura with saffron garlic aioli
For the prawn tempura
400gm chopped prawns
30 ml lemon juice
50gm sliced red onion
20gm sliced green chilli
50gm chopped shallots
5gm chopped coriander
10gm sliced spring onion
15gm corn flour
1 free-range egg
oil for frying
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the saffron aioli
2 free-range egg yolks
1 finely chopped garlic clove
15ml lemon juice
2gm fine sea salt
150ml extra virgin olive oil n 10 threads of saffron
For the prawn tempura, mix the prawns with the lime juice, onion, chillies, shallot, coriander and spring onion. Leave overnight.
Just before you cook the prawns, add corn flour and egg to the mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
For the saffron aioli, put the egg yolks in a mixing bowl with the garlic, lemon juice and salt. Whisk. Very gradually whisk in the olive oil till you have a glistening sauce with the consistency of soft butter. Stir in the saffron and chill.
Heat a deep-fat fryer to 1800C.
Drop tablespoons of the prawn mixture into the hot oil. You will need to cook them in 4 batches — do not crowd the fryer. Fry them for two minutes, or until golden-brown. Drain the cooked batter on kitchen paper and leave to rest until you have fried the remaining mixture.
To serve, place the tempura in a large bowl and dip indulgently into the aioli.
Saffron crème caramel
For the custard
500ml full-fat milk
12 cardamom pods
10 saffron stamens
4 egg yolks
2 free-range eggs
80gm caster sugar
For the caramel
125gm caster sugar
For the custard, pour milk into a saucepan. Remove the cardamom seeds from their green pods. Grind the seeds to powder, add them to the milk with saffron and boil. Remove from the heat, and set aside for 20 minutes to infuse.
For the caramel, put the caster sugar in a small pan and then pour water to just cover it. Leave to boil until it's walnut-brown in colour.
Preheat the oven to 150C. Pour the caramel into four China ramekins.
Put the kettle on to boil and return to the custard. Beat together the egg yolks, eggs, and caster sugar.
Strain the infused milk through a sieve into a large jug to remove the cardamom and saffron. Pour the milk over the eggs and sugar and stir them together.
Bake the custard for 40 minutes, or until they are set. Remove and leave to cool in the fridge for two hours.
Place a small plate on top and turn the plate and ramekin over. Shake firmly and let the custard slide out.
Saffron sweet rice
15ml olive oil
400gm basmati rice
750ml boiling water
A pinch of saffron soaked in lukewarm water
30gm soaked raisins
Heat butter and oil in a deep saucepan until they start to foam. Add rice and stir until all the grains are coated. Pour in the boiling water and stir. Following which, add salt and saffron. Bring water back to the boil. Finally, add raisins.
Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid.
Cook until all the water has been absorbed (about 20 minutes). Turn off the heat and leave the rice to stand for five minutes before serving.
The writer is a corporate chef. His insta handle is www.instagram.com/chefvabsy.