10.12.2013

I'm Just Mad about Saffron

Yes, I'm just mad about saffron... I love its earthy - almost ethereal - flavor, although I don't like its cost. While I know exactly why it is so expensive, I always hope I will find some real saffron at fake saffron prices.

In case you aren’t aware why it is so costly, saffron must be hand-picked. Saffron are the three stigmas of the autumn crocus (crocus sativa), which is said to be native to Greece and Southwest Asia. There is no easy way to mechanize the process, so the humanpower needed to get an ounce is almost staggering. Stigmas form 150 croci must be picked quickly and carefully dried to produce 1 ounce.

Once, in San Francisco, I bought some "saffron" in a small Middle Eastern grocery story in the Sunset district. It was a decent-sized bag and it only cost $2.99! The price should have been my clue that it wasn't saffron; it was dried calendula petals masquerading as saffron.

Call me bitter. Well, at least call me bitterly disappointed!

I learned that lesson at a young age, and I have never forgotten it. But that didn't stop me from believing that I could find good saffron at reasonable prices.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I generally order it through Amazon and the quality has been very good. Most recently, an ounce of saffron (about 14.5 grams) went for less than $60, whereas most stores are selling 1 gram for between $10 and $15. Quite a bargain when you 'do the math!'

This is very good for me, as I use saffron liberally. I use it in risotto alla Milanese, in a Baroque Spanish hot chocolate (which also has vanilla, rosebuds, cinnamon, and chile de Árbol), and today's dish - spaghetti with a tomato-saffron cream sauce.

The first time I made this dish, we had friends Marylou and Steve visiting us in Maine from Connecticut. We all attended the Blues Festival across the river in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was a hot, steamy August evening, and we ate in our small, screened-in conservatory, drinking wine and telling stories all evening.

It was an evening I remember so well - an evening in which the food, friends, and conversation all melded to create one perfect moment, a magical memory.

Since then, I have made several different iterations of this sauce, and tonight's was particularly good. So good, that I thought I should share it with you. And, of course, write it down so I can replicate it in the future.


Donovan, I can't tell you if "Saffron is mad about me," but I think you know now how I feel about her.

~ David

Spaghetti with Tomato-Saffron Cream Sauce 

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small onions or shallots
1/2 cup diced pancetta
1 1/2 pounds San Marzano or plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 cup white wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup heavy (full) cream
1/2 cup pasta cooking water
12 ounces spaghetti

a sprig of basil for garnish, if desired

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Peel and chop the onion/shallot finely. Add the shallot and the pancetta to the melted butter and sauté for about 10 minutes, or until onion/shallots are soft, and the pancetta is turning golden, about 10 minutes.


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add spaghetti and cook until al dente.


Add the diced tomatoes and cook for 5-10 minutes, until tomatoes are breaking down. Cooking time will vary in accordance with the ripeness of the tomatoes.


Add the saffron threads and stir. Then add the wine and cook for 2-3 minutes until much of the liquid has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cream and stir to combine. If needed, add up to a 1/2 cup cooking water to keep a sauce-like consistency.


Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Stir to coat spaghetti, allowing the flavors of the sauce to penetrate the pasta.


Divide among four pasta plates, and serve immediately.


Serves 4.

28 comments:

  1. Yum! This sounds so good - John would love it. Have you ever ordered spices from Penzeys? I couldn't begin to tell you how many we have!

    Of course, I love your Italian plate!

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    1. Thanks, Susan! The Italian plates were a gift from our friends Ellen and Jim - they bought then in Italy (a passion purchase) and never used them. They figured I would get a LOT of use out of them, and they were right!

      We use Penzeys all the time. Luckily, there is one very close to our house and I stop in all the time, just to sniff!

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    2. I told you John would love it: http://www.createamazingmeals.com/2013/10/cocoa-and-lavender-spaghetti-with.html

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    3. I am SO glad you and John liked it! Top three? I am really honored! Thanks so much - this is the nicest tribute I could receive!

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  2. I rarely cook with saffron, but when I do, I enjoy the earthiness it brings to a dish. And of course that colour. I often see big bags of faux saffron in Asian grocers and wonder why people even bother. I made the mistake once and bought some out of curiosity. I think I used it once and it sat in the spice pantry for an eternity. Now it's just the real thing for me.

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    1. John - I think we had similar experiences of buying the fake stuff... and, when you get the real stuff, you know it! Is saffron not used in Croatia very much?

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  3. Beautiful, and you know I'm a fan of saffron :)

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    1. Thanks, Ahu! Saffron is just one of the many things that make us culinary brother and sister!

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  4. Yum! looks good David, I love these kind of dishes. Now tell me more about Baroque Spanish hot chocolate.. I would love the recipe this sounds like something that would be right up my alley :)

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    1. Karen - the Spanish Baroque hot chocolate is amazing - I will probably post on it this winter! Stay tuned! (If you can't wait till then, email me! :)

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  5. I love the flavor of saffron, but it's the beautiful flavor that lures me in. This is a gorgeous pasta dish!

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    1. Thanks, Valentina - I agree with you; the color is amazing.

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  6. D, I'm crazy about saffron, too.
    Adding it to a very classic Italian sauce is genius.
    This looks delicious. Gotta make some this week.
    Thanks! xo

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    1. Colette - I pretty much knew you were a saffron love. Call it instinct. Call it, "David knows you're Persian." I got a recipe for a ricotta saffron cake - can't wait to try that.

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  7. David, sorry, I am running so late with comments this week but I was a tad overwhelmed with cooking and baking up a storm for the family and our lovely visitors from France and Canada - now, a bit of a depp breath and onto your wonderful dish of Spaghetti with Tomato-Saffron Cream Sauce - this looks so incredibly good, I can almost smell it all the way to Bonn! What a great recipe, wonderful pictures - and, yes, those pretty Italian pasta plates. It all works and now I feel like I have to run into the kitchen immediately and make this dish.
    Thanks for posting a wonderful recipe - I think I do need to buy some more saffron though...
    Have a great Wednesday und ganz liebe Grüße aus Bonn!
    Andrea

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    1. You are so kind, Andrea - never apologize for being late on comments! I am all the time. It is hard between work, visitors and family to read everything and take time to comment. And I really appreciate your kind words. Let me know if you try the spaghetti!

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  8. what a gorgeous dish - I am mad about saffron too - that tin is just gorgeous by the way!
    PS- Excellent duck names ;)

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    1. Glad you like it, Anna! When I got my first ounce container of saffron, I fell in love with the tins. I sometimes hope I will run out so I can get another! Glad you liked the duck names, too. :)

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  9. David, This is definitely a keeper! (Ah, what am I saying? I keep ALL of your recipes!)
    I loved the addition of Donovan. I could hear him singing as I read your article so when I got to the video, I had to chuckle. I'm pretty confident that I learned about "saffron" from Donovan!
    I look forward to using some saffron I just received as a gift!

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    1. You know, Susan, I think it was Donovan who first taught me about saffron, too. Ah, the drug-induced 60s were so good to us... What the heck did that song mean, anyway? :) The saffron you got is a powdered version - works very well in a cream sauce - it incorporates so well into the sauce.

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  10. I will definitely be putting this recipe into my binder to try!

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  11. OMG I love that song! And saffron, OF COURSE!!! So amazing. I never mind the price, it's absolutely worth it, like pine nuts. You just need to do justice by it, and this sauce sounds perfect! Especially for a pasta fanatic like myself. I've had the inexpensive bag too, what a dissappointment. The same happened to me with szechuan peppercorns when I get a cheap bag. I'm making this pasta soon, what a perfect way to remember your italian vacation and have a great time with friends David! (ps: that's 0.5oz for $60, 1oz=28.4)

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    1. Jaja - not many of us food bloggers are old enough to remember the song! Paula, the good news is that there is more Italian Vacation Cooking coming!

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  12. I love everything about saffron. The golden color it creates always makes me smile.

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    1. Yep, the color is amazing. And, unlike turmeric, the flavor rocks, too!

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  13. Love saffron also!!! Want to try this.. very elegant dish

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