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I Spice: Saffron

Halvah-ye-havij, a carrot-saffron pudding. Read on to get the recipe. (courtesy Najmieh Batmanglij)

The most common question I get about saffron from readers is, interestingly enough, how they can go about avoiding it. Not because they don’t like the spice, which is fragrant and gorgeous, but for two other reasons: It is expensive, and they don’t understand what the hoopla is all about.

Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is actually an affordable luxury because a little goes a long way. The world’s best saffron comes from Spain and from India’s Kashmir valley. Saffron filaments are the dried stigmas of the saffron flower, Crocus sativus . It takes 225,000 stigmas, picked by hand from 75,000 violet-colored crocuses during the two-week fall flowering period, to produce one pound of saffron, which costs about $4,500 a pound.

I chatted with D.C.-based Persian cooking expert and author Najmieh Batmanglij about this lovely spice. She told me her sons always have associated “home” with the aroma of rice and its distinctive saffron-flavored golden crust, called tahdig. She shared a lovely little ditty about saffron from the Salerno regimen from medieval times that can be found in her book, “Silk Road Cooking”:

Saffron arouses joy in every breast
Settles the stomach
Gives the liver rest.

In ancient Persia, she told me, they also valued its medicinal properties. Saffron was used it to make teas to suppress coughs and induce sleep. Saffron is also said to be an antidepressant; some consider it an aphrodisiac. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Shortly after Buddha died, his priests made saffron the official color for their robes. The dye has been used for royal garments in several cultures.”

Behroush Sharifi, a.k.a. the Saffron King, is a spice importer who supplies saffron to about 50 restaurants in the Washington area alone. His advice for buying saffron is to look for the ISO information on the back of the package. The International Organization for Standardization test (ISO/3632) measures saffron quality. When inspecting the package, note that the saffron threads should be deep red in color, and bright; dull threads indicate that the spice has aged. Buy whole threads, since it is hard to determine the quality of powdered saffron. The flavor is unique, and there is no substitute for it.

Store saffron in an airtight container, in a cool and dark place away from extremes of temperature.

Use sparingly, since its flavor is strong: about three strands per person in a recipe, as a general rule. Too much gives a bitter, medicinal edge to a dish. Saffron is water-soluble; the best way to use it is to soak it in warm water, in warm milk or, as they do in Persian cooking, in rose water for a few minutes to allow the spice to release its color and fragrance.

Najmieh offers this excellent tip: Grind saffron with a cube of sugar in a spice grinder, then dilute with boiling water or rose water and keep in the refrigerator in a glass bottle, tightly closed to prevent the aroma from escaping.

The proportions of saffron and hot water are 1/4 teaspoon of ground saffron threads in 1 tablespoon of hot water or rose water. (To make more, just scale up directly: 1/2 teaspoon in 2 tablespoons, and so on.)

In addition to adding golden hues to dishes, saffron adds a wonderful aroma. Typically it is used in Spanish paella, French bouillabaisse and Indian rice dishes and desserts.

Friends and readers suggest using it in risotto, pasta, seafood stews, rice pudding, breads, tea and more.
--Monica Bhide

Carrot-Saffron Pudding (Halva-ye-havij)
6 servings

Recipe adapted from “From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table” by Najmieh Batmanglij (Mage Publishers, 2006).

1 pound carrots, peeled and grated (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron
1 tablespoon rose water
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons ground pistachios, for garnish ( optional)

Combine the carrots and milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cover and cook for 40 to 55 minutes, stirring frequently, until the carrots have absorbed all the milk.

Dissolve the saffron in the rose water.

Add the sugar, cardamom, saffron-rose water solution and the butter; cook, stirring constantly, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the mixture is thick and pudding-like. Remove from the heat.

Use an ice cream scoop to divide the mixture among individual dessert dishes. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled and ready to serve.

Just before serving, garnish with the ground pistachios, if desired.

Per serving: 244 calories, 3 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 32 mg cholesterol, 94 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 32 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  June 5, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide, Najmieh Batmanglij  
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Oh... I haven't made Risotto alla Milanese in ages (which, for those who don't know, is saffron risotto)! I will have to do so very soon - it's a childhood comfort food that I love. Many people find this odd thinking that risotto is some kind of sophisticated food, but this or other kinds of risotto were common at dinner growing up near Milan.

Which brings me to a question. I know that saffron is (was?) also picked in Italy and I think Spain. I'm not sure where it's grown today, but historically I know that one place was in Tuscany, near San Gimignano. Anyhow, I recall the saffron in Italy as being not as red as you describe... perhaps more yellow? Do you figure this may be due to differences in the variety/climate/etc or my dubious memory? Do you think the flavors would be noticeably different? Thank you much!

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | June 5, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

For recipes that require soaking saffron in water/milk and then using the liquid in the recipe, I have a cookbook that says you can fish out the saffron, dry it, and reuse once. Maybe it wouldn't be AS strong, but it would save some cash!

Posted by: lizlemon | June 5, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

So sorry for the delay in responding to you question. I asked Najmieh Batmanglij for her expert opinion and here is her response "Saffron originated in Persia/Iran and the Arabs took it to Italy and Spain in the 9th century. Of course, the quality of saffron, aroma and color depend on the geography and climate. The more intense Persian saffron might have a more intense color than the Italian variety.
In diluted saffron water, the color depends on its concentration -- the result on white rice can be from light orange or distinctly golden."

Hope that helps.

Posted by: mbhide | June 11, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

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