Saffron – The World’s Most Expensive Spice: By Polly Fossey
In a tiny glass jar with a dainty cork stopper, saffron threads seem almost to precious use. This little jar has been in my pantry far too long and so, in preparation for this food feature, I decide to finally experiment with the world’s most expensive spice.
Whenever using an unfamiliar ingredient, I first consult the ubiquitous On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee. Harvesting saffron requires 200 hours of labor for just 1 pound of dried saffron and it must be taken from the crocus flower on the same day that the flower begins to open. It is also a delicate spice–best stored in an airtight container in the freezer because it is affected by heat and light. McGee describes the flavor as “characterized by notable bitterness and penetrating, hay-like aroma.” This unique flavor is used in pilaf, paella, bouillabaisse, Italian risotto, Indian biryanni and milk sweets. It only takes a small amount of saffron steeped in milk or water to make a dramatic effect on the color and flavor of a dish.
Knowing I had high quality Coop shrimp and fish in my freezer, and with the idea that I might attempt some version of a seafood bouillabaisse, I stopped at Chelsea Market on my way home from work and bought a quart of fish stock and–on impulse–a quart of lobster stock. (When I make this again, I will certainly special order some fish bones from the coop to make my own stock.) When I arrived home, I performed a quick triage of items in my pantry and crisper drawer. I found some sad looking leeks, a wilted fennel bulb and some garlic, all of which I sweated down in some olive oil. I also happened to have an overabundance of summer squash, so that went in the pot too along with some tomatoes. When all of this had cooked down a fair amount, I threw in the fish, and lobster stock and left the mixture to simmer for a bit. While this did its thing, I peeled the shrimp and made a quick stock from the shells. Now is was time for the most important step. I added the saffron and watched as it deepened the color of the soup and imparted its distinct flavor. I tasted the soup now and judged that it needed bay leaf, freshly ground nutmeg, and bit of sambal, thyme, rosemary, freshly ground pepper and salt. Next, using an immersion blender, I pureed the mixture and fortified it with some milk and heavy cream. All that was left was to gently cook the cubed fish and peeled shrimp in the broth. When the seafood was still tender, I ladled the finished soup over a bowl of beautiful multicolored snow peas and bok choy and garnished with a simple salad of fennel frond and flowering Chinese celery dressed in oil and cider vinegar. I served the soup with buttered baguette toasts. The meal was immensely satisfying–layered and rich with complex flavors and textures. Saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, but I’m now convinced that stockpiling it in my pantry is a colossal waste of its culinary potential. I certainly won’t hesitate to use saffron anymore and I hope you won’t either!