By Michael Pickering
Until the late 15th Century, selling inferior or adulterating authentic saffron was a punishable crime. Times have changed. In my neighborhood today, the price of saffron ranges from $1.50/oz (a Chinese medicinal, which is a mixture of saffron and safflower) to $1000.00/oz (certified organic, unit size 0.007oz, sold as a food commodity). At organic prices, moisture would be a significant adulterant. Buyers beware: I have also seen pure Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) pistils sold as saffron at $12.45/oz. The pure pistils are variously referred to as Mexican saffron, Portuguese saffron, or bastard saffron. Though safflower will produce the desired color, it is lacking the distinctive taste and smell of true saffron. Such egregious behavior surely would have warranted the death penalty in the Middle Age.
The North African Crocus is a lovely, lavender bloom in the fall. Each flower bears three outrageously large stamens which must be harvested by hand immediately upon blossoming. The stamens are bright red-orange when plucked and deep red to brown when dried. In trade, they are referred to as threads. Although saffron is cited as a medicinal in the Chinese Pharmacopeia, most peoples of the world prize the threads for their characteristic color and heady, aromatic spice qualities. The spice is considered the costliest in the world due to the laborious harvest and paltry yield (estimated at 13,000 stamens per ounce).
The following are singular dishes that cannot be prepared without saffron: Bouillabaise, Harira, Risotto Milanese, and Seafood Paella.
Since saffron has no ritual significance to me, nor am I royalty, the bulk Chinese variety suits my palate. I just use more to create the effect I want. My favorite personal recipe, using the bulk Chinese saffron, is as follows:
Poached White Fish with Saffron Infused Lime Sauce
White fish filletsThree peppercorns per filletCourt Bouillon:
- about 4 cups water
- one-forth cup Mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
- one lime, juice and zest
- three green onions, chopped
- one stalk celery, thinly sliced including the leaves if possible
- Cointreau and lime juice, 1:1 ratio (if you want stronger lime flavor, add the zest too)
- Saffron 1/8 tsp. per fillet, ground in a mortar (if using certified organic saffron, add three threads per four fillets)
- chopped green onions
- toasted pumpkin seeds
Using a heavy iron skillet large enough to accommodate the fish without touching, warm the peppercorns until aromatic. Add water and other bouillon ingredients. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Push aside solids and lay fish fillets flat on bottom of skillet – bouillon level in skillet should be even with tops of fillets. Bring back to simmer, cover skillet and turn off heat. Set aside for 15-20 minutes. Remove fillets and set on serving platter, pour sauce over fish, garnish and serve. Enjoy!
Photo (l to r): organic Saffron, Safflower, and Herbal mix containing Safflower and trace amounts of Saffron