High from saffron

A symbol of wealth and elegance not so long ago, the spice continues to serve many purposes.

Stew 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/MCT)
Stew 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/MCT)
There’s a saying in Iran that eating a lot of saffron can make you silly, said Melody, the manager of the new Persian restaurant, Salt & Pepper Cuisine, in Woodland Hills, California.
“When I eat dishes infused with generous amounts of saffron, it does make me laugh a lot,” she added.
“Because of its expense, saffron has always been a symbol of wealth and elegance,” wrote Margaret Shaida in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. “The aristocrats of ancient Persia not only dyed their robes and perfumed their halls with saffron, they also benefited from its medicinal properties. It was considered a splendid tonic for the heart and for the relief of melancholy, but it was believed that eating too much could produce a state of alarming euphoria.
“But it was in gastronomy that saffron made the most lasting impression in Persia,” wrote Shaida. “It was used in the preparation of food to enhance the flavor, the fragrance and the beauty of the dishes set before the royal court and for all festive occasions.”
Melody’s mother, Nahid Arya, who is a chef at the restaurant, uses saffron with a liberal hand. The basmati rice dishes, including one studded with fava beans and flavored abundantly with fresh dill, had both white rice grains and yellow, saffron-flavored ones. Saffron’s aroma was especially pronounced in the tahchin, a baked yellow rice and chicken dish that my mother would have described as a rice kugel. The tasty, deep brown lentil soup we had was flavored not only with onions and garlic, but also with saffron.
As is traditional in Persian cuisine, saffron flavors the marinades for the fish served at the restaurant, and several of the stews as well. Such stews, called khoreshes, are spiced with moderation, wrote Forough Hekmat, author of The Art of Persian Cooking, “usually with saffron, black pepper and turmeric, and flavored with sour juices such as lime, lemon, sour orange or verjuice [the juice of unripe green grapes].”
At the restaurant we enjoyed a split pea and beef stew, served the classic way – spooned over basmati rice. This type of stew is a must at large gatherings, according to Hekmat. To make it, she cooks yellow split peas with ground meat, tomato juice and lime juice, and spices the stew with turmeric and saffron. (See recipe below.)
SAFFRON IS used in rice and in meat stews around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, but in Persian cuisine it is used in egg dishes as well. Kuku sabzi, a thick flat omelet so full of herbs that it is green, is often flavored with saffron. So is an eggplant-studded omelet.
In Persian cooking saffron is also used with fruit. The tart red barberries that garnished the tahchin were poached with sugar and saffron.
Hekmat uses saffron in a fruit and nut khoreshe made of ground meat cooked with onions, split peas and a lavish amount of dried fruit and nuts.
Even desserts such as ice cream benefit from the flavor of saffron. Persian saffron ice cream, which is also flavored with rose water and pistachios, is delicious. We also like saffron-flavored halva and yellow Persian rice pudding, colored with saffron and served sprinkled with cinnamon.
The high cost of saffron is due to the fact that it must be hand-harvested.
Still, a little goes a long way. You need only a pinch or two to flavor a pot of rice for four servings.
Most cooks prefer to buy saffron in threads rather than as a powder to be sure it is pure. Threads that are bright red indicate that the saffron is of the best quality, with the most taste and aroma. The spice keeps for a year or longer when stored in a cool, dark, dry place.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
This recipe is from The Art of Persian Cooking. Author Forough Hekmat wrote that it is mandatory at weddings, funerals, birthdays and large dinner parties and is served with white rice, or rice with a sweet garnish.
To use saffron, wrote Hekmat, cooks pound the threads in a small mortar until it becomes a fine powder. Then they add a few drops of hot water to form a thick, pungent liquid.
Hekmat flavors the stew with lime juice or dried limes; you can substitute lemon juice. Start with 1⁄4 cup and add more to taste.
To enhance the stew, Hekmat notes that after simmering the split peas and meat for 45 minutes, you can add any of the following ingredients: 225 grams (1⁄2 pound) diced and fried potatoes, diced and fried apples or quinces, or pitted sour cherries; 1 peeled and diced eggplant; or 110 grams (4 ounces) dried red or small white beans.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large onion, chopped 4 Tbsp. oil 450 gr. (1 pound) ground lamb, veal or beef 1⁄2 tsp. pepper 1⁄2 tsp. turmeric 1 cup tomato juice 1⁄2 cup hot water 110 gr. ( 1⁄4 pound) dried yellow split peas 1⁄2 cup lime juice or 3 dried limes (limu omani) 1⁄2 tsp. salt or to taste 1⁄4 tsp. saffron
Saute the onion in the oil in a deep pot until well browned. Remove onion and drain. In the oil remaining in the pot cook the meat, mixed with the pepper and turmeric. Stir well until all the ingredients are smoothly mixed.
Add tomato juice and hot water and cook over medium heat, covered, until meat is well done. Add split peas and lime juice or dried limes, and season with salt. Partially cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes.
Add the fried onion and ingredients noted above. Again partially cover and simmer until all the ingredients are cooked and blended and a rich, colorful gravy rises to the surface. Meanwhile, mix the saffron with 2 or 3 teaspoons hot water. When ready to serve, pour the stew into a serving bowl and sprinkle with the liquid saffron.
Studded with nuts and fruit and flavored with carrots and orange zest, this colorful, easy pilaf is inspired by an elaborate Persian casserole of rice and chicken. Traditionally the rice is flavored with tart, reddish barberries that somewhat resemble cranberries.
Some Persian cooks candy the orange zest to enhance the sweetness of the dish.
Ghee (clarified butter) is the traditional choice to enrich the rice, but today many use fresh butter, margarine or vegetable oil. If you want to make the dish with ghee or butter, substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth.
Makes 5 or 6 servings
3 1⁄2 cups chicken broth mixed with water, about equal parts of each 1⁄4 tsp. saffron threads (2 pinches), lightly crushed 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 medium onion, minced 1 3⁄4 cups long-grain white rice Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 cup coarsely grated carrot 1 tsp. finely grated orange zest 1⁄3 cup dried cranberries 2⁄3 cup slivered almonds or shelled pistachios, or 1⁄3 cup of each, lightly toasted
Heat broth and water to a simmer in a small saucepan; or heat them in a large measuring cup in the microwave.
Add saffron, cover and let steep while you saute the onions.
Heat oil in a large saute pan, a wide stew pan or a deep skillet. Add onion and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or until soft but not brown.
Add rice and cook, stirring gently, for 3 minutes or until grains begin to turn white.
Pour saffron broth over rice, add a little salt and pepper and stir once.
Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer, without stirring, for 12 minutes. Scatter carrots, orange zest and cranberries over top. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed.
Sprinkle rice with half the nuts.
Fluff rice gently with a large fork, gently stirring to evenly distribute the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, topped with remaining nuts.