It may not feel much like spring, but eating flowers might be a provisional substitute for smelling them. It will do, for awhile. This flower, or rather its papery crimson stigmas, has been sitting in my cupboard for almost a year now, summoning me to release its captive aromas.
It is the rare and venerable saffron of which I speak. An exquisite and expensive spice that, were it not for a trip to India, might have never wound up in my hands, let alone my dinner.
Finally it was time. I reached behind the basil, cayenne and turmeric into the shadows of my spice shelf where the clear case sat, modest as a box of matches. Almost one year ago now I carried that tiny treasure chest all the way home from a spice stall in a Jodhpur market. The experts say I should’ve used it by now, but sometimes I forget what good things I have and how to best appreciate them.
I knew I had tasted saffron before, but could not recall its particular feel on my tongue or the way it whirled madly between nostrils and tastebuds. I wanted to use it right, and I was afraid. The delicately canvas of rice, or something more complex? Would sweet or savory best highlight its essence? Would meat overpower? Which vegetable would be most companionable.
And then I stopped worrying and remembered that when a dish is born out of a desire to celebrate and create, it matters not that it’s perfect but that it brims with pleasure. As I tossed a pinch of this valuable spice into a pan of humble chickpeas and tomatoes simmering gaily on the stove, it just seemed right. The noble saffron threads kissed the peasant stew, and I bent over the aroma expectantly. My Kashmiri saffron would taste just fine, while reminding me of the rare things in this world: from love and camaraderie to being able to taste the threads from a crocus that grow only three per flower.
Served with basmati rice, it may not have been authentically Spanish, but with some crab cakes leftover from a great party on the weekend, it made a simple and nourishing meal. In the future I might crown it with some grilled prawns or scallops. With my last bite came a wave of anticipation for weaving those frail red threads again and again.
serves 2-3 with leftovers or 4-5 as a side dish
3 c chopped fresh Roma or vine tomatoes
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 T soy sauce
2 tsp Adobo sauce (I used a chipotle salsa and a squirt of Sriracha)
1 Tbsp paprika
medium pinch saffron
2 c chopped red onion
1 T olive oil
2 15-oz cans chickpeas (3 cups cooked)
- Soak the pinch of saffron in a few tablespoons of boiling water while you prepare the other ingredients, cook up some rice, etc. Ideally, it should be soaked for about 2o-45 minutes (saffron releases its flavour slowly).
- Combine the tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce, adobo and paprika and set aside.
- Saute the red onions in the olive oil over medium heat until soft.
- Add the chickpeas, tomato mixture, and saffron (with the soaking water). Simmer for 10-20 minutes.
- Serve over rice.
Spiced Saffron Rice from Gourmet Magazine
Rice Pudding with Lemon and Saffron from Edible Adventures
Lentil Soup with Saffron Yogurt from 101 cookbooks