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'Let's buy this for Shabbat!" my mother always said when we shopped together and found something special, whether it was an expensive fish, an exotic fruit or fine chocolate. She was following a time-honored custom that Shabbat should be a celebration, a theme that permeates Jewish folklore. As a child, I often heard stories emphasizing that even the poorest of Jews did their best to make Shabbat festive.
According to Martine Chiche Yana, author of La Table Juive (The Jewish Table) published by Edisud, 1990, "Tradition tells us that the six days of the week (not including Shabbat) are divided in two periods... during the first period, from Sunday to Tuesday, everyone lives in the atmosphere of nostalgia for the Shabbat that had just passed; during the second period, from Wednesday to Friday, everyone is waiting for the upcoming Shabbat." This attitude is shared by Jews worldwide.
Several months ago, I was discussing Persian rice with Michelle, an American-born Persian girl, after synagogue services. I asked her whether she knew how to prepare it. "Of course," the teenager said, "all Persian girls learn how to cook."
But she suggested I talk to her mother, "the expert." Her mother told me she seasons Persian rice with turmeric.
"Not saffron?" I asked.
Her reply: "Saffron is only for Shabbat!"
Using the world's costliest spice for Shabbat is not only a Persian practice. Edda Servi Machlin, the author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking (Ecco, 2005), wrote that saffron is said to have been brought to Italy from Asia Minor by the Jews for their Shabbat rice. (If this is true, the Italians have the Jews to thank for their wonderful saffron-scented dish, risotto milanese.) In Ferrara, Machlin noted, Shabbat saffron rice was regarded as the Jewish food par excellence. The rice is very rich, as it is cooked with meat broth and "oil from a roast," or olive oil left in the pan from roasting veal.
Jews in Greece made a simpler saffron rice pilaf, according to Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece (Cadmus, 1986). The rice was cooked with olive oil, water, lemon juice and salt, and finished with saffron steeped in water.
Preparing it this way highlighted saffron's delicate flavor and fragrance.
Stavroulakis noted that Greek Jews made fancier saffron pilafs, too. One, favored in Athens and in Izmir (Turkey), featured rice cooked with sauteed onions, bay leaves, currants and pine nuts, then enhanced with saffron, mint, sauteed almonds and sauteed chicken livers.
Jews of Moroccan origin are especially fond of saffron and sometimes add it to couscous or dafina (Moroccan cholent). With a small amount of saffron, cooks turn humble foods into festive dishes. Fortunee Hazan-Arama, the author of Saveurs de Mon Enfance: La Cuisine Juive du Maroc (Savors of My Childhood: The Jewish Cooking of Morocco) published by Laffont, 1987, cites several traditional Shabbat soups that sound plain from their names. One is called potato and onion soup and another is simply chickpea soup. But both gain richness from beef and are enlivened with cilantro (fresh coriander) and with saffron.
Among people from the Maghreb, saffron is also loved with fish. When I lived in Paris, a Moroccan-Jewish friend gave me a recipe for saffron fish balls poached in a tomato sauce that was also seasoned with the aromatic golden spice. A sort of Moroccan gefilte fish, I thought.
It turns out that fish balls are as popular for Shabbat fare among North African Jews as gefilte fish is among Ashkenazim. Well, almost as popular.
Other familiar Ashkenazi foods have equivalents in the North African kitchen as well, and saffron gives them a special character. In Moroccan homes, Shabbat chicken noodle soup might gain a golden hue from saffron. Barley soup is flavored not with carrots, but with tomatoes and saffron.
You can find saffron in spice shops. If it will cook in a sauce or soup, you can add it directly to the pot. When using saffron to finish a dish without further cooking, steep the saffron in a few tablespoons of hot water first so its flavor develops, then add the saffron liquid to the dish. This is a useful trick if you want to prepare white rice, turn part of it into saffron rice, and leave the rest of the rice white for kids or picky eaters.
SAFFRON RICE PILAF WITH PISTACHIOS
This simple pilaf showcases the flavor of the saffron. Toasted pistachios make a lovely garnish but you can omit them.
For a more elaborate Moroccan saffron pilaf, add sliced mushrooms, diced green peppers, diced tomatoes and another tablespoon of oil to the sauteed onions and saute together briefly. Then continue with the recipe. Top the rice with raisins and toasted almonds.
1â„4 tsp. crushed saffron threads (2 pinches)
21â„2 cups hot water, chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 small or 1â„2 large onion, finely chopped
11â„4 cups long-grain white rice
3â„4 tsp. salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. minced parsley (optional)
1â„4 cup shelled toasted pistachios
Add saffron to 1 cup hot water; cover and let stand while you prepare remaining ingredients. Heat oil in a large wide saucepan. Add onion and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add rice and saute, stirring, for 3 minutes or until grains begin to turn white.
Pour saffron in its liquid and remaining 11â„2 cups hot water over rice and stir once. Add salt and pepper; you'll need more salt if using water than if using salted broth.
Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer, without stirring, for 18 minutes or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Let stand, covered, off heat for 10 minutes.
Fluff rice gently with a large fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve topped with parsley and pistachios.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).
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