I don’t know about you, but I am wild about saffron. Saffron is a golden red spice from the stigmas of a small purple crocus native to the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and Iran where it was first cultivated during the Bronze Age. Each flower produces just three stigmas (or threads) and must be harvested by hand then dried. It takes 14,000 of the tiny stigmas to yield one ounce of the spice which retails for $500. Saffron has not only been used to flavor and tint foods, but it’s been used to dye fabrics and as a perfume. The flavor and aroma are described as earthy, floral and a little bit sweet.
Over the past 30 years there has been renewed global interest in saffron cultivation for use in beauty products, the food industry and for its health benefits. The highest quality saffron is grown in Iran, but there are a number of small, diversified American farms that are cultivating it. Growing saffron is labor-intensive, but it can be lucrative, particularly on small plots with less than ideal soil. Farmers in states as diverse as California, Texas, Vermont and Pennsylvania are cultivating it (on a small scale). Once the crocus is planted, it comes back year-after-year and blooms in the late fall, after other crops have been harvested or planted.
Saffron has been recognized for its healthful properties for thousands of years. Here are a few:
Powerful antioxidants – Saffron contains molecules that protect your cells against free radicals and oxidative stress. Crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments responsible for saffron’s red color. Both compounds may have antidepressant qualities, reduce cell-damaging inflammation and reduce appetite that can aid weight loss.
May improve mood – In a limited number of studies, saffron appeared to be more effective than a placebo for treating mild to moderate symptoms of depression.
May have cancer fighting properties – Saffron contains compounds that help limit free radicals and that can help reduce instances of some cancers. Test-tube studies have also suggested that crocin — the main antioxidant in saffron — may make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy drugs.
May reduce symptoms of PMS – For hundreds of years women have ingested saffron to help relieve menstrual cramps. Today, many women find a daily dose of saffron helps with premenstrual symptoms, such as irritability, headaches, cravings and pain. The mood-enhancing properties of saffron also help to relieve some symptoms of depression and avoid the decreased libido caused by anti-depressant medications.
The ‘sunshine spice’ is delicious in savory and sweet recipes. It enhances seafood and rice dishes and plays well in the same space as vanilla in cookies, custards and other desserts. The flavor profiles of the two are similar: sweet and musky. Yes, saffron is worth its weight in gold, but a couple of threads go a long way when it comes to seasoning recipes.
The addition of saffron makes this easy, classic dish ultra-luxurious.
1 tsp. saffron threads
2 tsp. sea salt
1⁄4 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1 (3 ½ to 4-lb.) chicken
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
6 sprigs rosemary
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Butcher’s string, for tying
Here’s an easy dish that showcases the saffron. Spaghettoni is simply thicker spaghetti. You can substitute most any long pasta.
1 tsp. honey
2 generous pinches of saffron (about 60 strands), or more as needed
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 Tbs. yellow cornmeal (fine polenta)
1 lb. cooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb. spaghettoni
¼ fresh Italian parsley, chopped for garnish
Don’t be intimidated! Risotto is a luxurious version of rice that just takes a little extra stirring. The saffron further enriches it and of course gives it its stunning yellow color.
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 cups uncooked Arborio rice
2 medium shallots, minced
1 cup dry white wine
½ tsp. saffron threads
½ tsp. ground black pepper
3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated (about 2 cups), plus more for garnish
2 Tbs. butter
Panna cotta means ‘cooked cream’ in Italian because that’s what it is. The mixture of cream, sugar and vanilla is heated then mixed with gelatin. The resulting dessert is a silky, eggless custard. The addition of saffron is an unexpected delight. You get the taste you’re familiar with from savory dishes; it’s a completely new experience.
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 gelatin sheets
1/4 tsp. saffron
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract