Saffron: Rare but Worth It
The Yale Farm is known for our d’Avignon radishes, our hand-mixed salad greens, and out Sungold tomatoes, but just last week I learned of a very different crop at the farm that is at its peak harvest. Dotted all over the berm under our horsechestnut tree are tiny, delicate saffron crocuses! (To give a sense of scale, the flowers are no more than four inches tall.)
Armed with a pair of pliers, the harvest began. Saffron comes from the stigmas of the eponymous crocus, and should ideally be harvested on the first day that the flower blooms. There are three threads to the stigma, each no more than an inch and a half long, that are delicately plucked out of the flower and laid out to dry.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world — we grow it at the farm just for kicks, but its ideal hot and dry conditions, plus the labor intensive hand-picking that it requires, means that most of the saffron in the world is grown in Iran, Spain, and India.
What makes saffron so special? In its dried form, saffron is an essential ingredient in Italian, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cuisine. It has this amazing aroma, rich and somehow simultaneously sweet and bitter. Saffron often crushed and dissolved in water or wine to best impart the golden color it gives to any food it’s added to. Paella gets its color from saffron; many risottos use it, too. But I grew up using saffron in the Iranian food prepared by my mother and grandmother.
Iranians use saffron in everything — as a garnish, a rice platter is topped with about a quarter-cup of rice that is orange from soaking in it. Chicken in Iranain dishes is never flesh-toned but always a golden yellow from saffron. Iranain ice cream is characterized by red flecks of saffron and clots of frozen cream. The list goes on. After the jump is my mother’s recipe for sholeh zard, a traditional Iranian rice pudding whose name translates to “yellow soup.” Flavored with saffron and garnished with cinnamon, it’s perfect for cold fall days served either warm or cold.
- 2/3 cup Basmati rice
- 2 cups water
- 3-4 tablespoons butter
- 1-1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons rosewater
- large pinch saffron
- silvered almonds (optional)
Rinse the rice and place in medium-sized pot. Add water and butter and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally so that the rice does not stay whole. Smash with the back of a fork if necessary, and add more water if needed.
Once the rice is cooked, add sugar (taste as you add the sugar in stages so it is not too sweet). Cook some more until sugar melts and the rice pudding thickens. Stir in rosewater.
Add the crushed saffron to the pudding. (You may rub the saffron mixed with a tablespoon of sugar with the back of a spoon so it is crushed well.) Add a handful of slivered almonds. Simmer for a while. Note: you may adjust the pudding by adding water or boiling on higher heat if necessary to acquire the desired thickness.
Put the pudding in serving dishes and decorate with cinnamon to create an interesting pattern on it. If desired, cut a stencil from paper to print a pattern on its surface. Can be served warm or chilled.