Friday, December 16, 2011

The Spice Must Flow: Saffron

Whenever I think of Dune, I think of The Spice. In my mind, that spice has always been saffron. A spice prized for centuries and whose scarcity make it seem like a forbidden luxury. It is the stigma of the crocus flower—tiny bright orange threads—with the unique flavor of grass and honey. It is a spice that has been prized and revered through history, yet its short supply and expense keep it from the pantry of many home chefs. A mere quarter of an ounce of the best quality can cost over $100.

Saffron is commonly seen in specialty stores and some local grocery stores. Unfortunately, a lot of what you see on those shelves is fake—swapped out with a safflower impostor. For years I wondered what all the fuss was about with saffron, because I had been duped by the cheap copycats I was using. Choose a saffron that you know is the real deal by doing some research. I go with Penzey's who offers three varieties at reasonable prices.

Although, saffron may not have the power to fold space or alter consciousness like The Spice of Dune, it may have another power all its own. The ancient Sumerians used it medicinally for remedies and magic potions. Hocus pocus aside, saffron is loaded with the antioxidant carotenoids like lycopene and β-carotene. There are even some studies out there saying saffron has anti-cancer, anti-depressant, and tumor suppressant properties. The Sumerians must have been on to something...

But what do you do with the stuff? Well there are saffron buns, whose paleo-friendly alternatives may come at a later date. Saffron is also a main ingredient in paella. I like my saffron paired with a flavor from the sea—with fresh mussels.

I don't have the luxury of splurging on the good stuff, but I would imagine that if you were so lucky to have the best, you could decrease the amount of saffron used in this recipe without forgoing flavor.

Mussels with Saffron Coconut Cream Sauce and Chorizo

2 lbs mussels, rinsed and cleaned

1 small onion, sliced and halved

3 cloves of garlic, minced

3 oz chorizo (cured, not raw), small dice

rounded 1/2 tsp (1/2 g) saffron threads

1/4 cup white wine (broth works here too)

3/4 cup coconut milk

2 tblsp parsley, chopped

salt and pepper, to taste

Soak the saffron threads in a tablespoon of tepid water.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a high-sided skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion, chorizo, and garlic and cook until the onion just starts to brown and the chorizo is a bit crispy, but stir so not to burn the garlic. Add the saffron and cook for about 1 minute or until fragrant. Season with salt and pepper as you go. Pour in the wine to deglaze and bring back to a boil. When the liquid is reduced by half, add the coconut milk and stir to combine. Carefully toss in the mussels and put a lid on the pan for about 5 minutes. You will known when the mussels are done when they willingly open their shells and their flesh comes off easily from the shell. Throw out any that don't open.

Remove the mussels to a bowl using a slotted spoon. Cook the sauce down for a couple minutes or to your desired consistency, then add the parsley and check for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the mussels and serve immediately.

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