I recently heard saffron referred to as the ‘Diva’ of spices. It is certainly worthy of that title because it is pricey, beautiful in color and a bit earthy, yet sweet in flavor. Paella immediately comes to my mind for dishes requiring saffron but I don’t have the pan (I know, lame excuse) and have never prepared it. My husband and I used to frequent a little restaurant gem in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC for the best paella around but I have nothing to compare it to since I have never been to Spain. However, I have been to Italy several times and was inspired to prepare Risotto allo Zafferano/Risotto alla Milanese ~ a specialty dish of Milan in the Lombardy region of Italy. I will share my version using the traditional method of preparation and my super simple recipe spun from the Barefoot Contessa’s oven method. Purists may cringe all they like ~ if you have ever painstakingly stood over the stove stirring this dish for almost an hour then you will love the baked method. Your biceps will miss the workout but your guests will appreciate it and may not even know the difference.
Saffron is a delicate, coveted little spice. Today, the best of the best is grown in Kashmir on the Indian continent. It is very difficult, if not nearly impossible to find in the U.S. Kashmir saffron is considered the world’s finest with its unbroken strands of deep, rich color. I would love to view it at a spice market but I will never go to India (too far).
Saffron is derived from the fall flowering Crocus sativus of the Iris family. One crocus can produce up to 4 flowers, each with 3 crimson colored stigmas which are hand-picked, dried quickly and preferably sealed in an airtight container. This labor intensive process is obviously where the cost factor comes in. Nearly all saffron is now grown in an area bound by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the rugged regions of Iran and Kashmir to the east. Iran is the largest exporter of this spice but saffron is easily obtained online from many different sources.
“I can’t cook” often translates to “I don’t have time to cook”. It is one thing if you absolutely despise being in the kitchen. I can’t relate to that as the kitchen is sort of my ‘Zen’ place and home-cooked meals feed my soul. Try one of my following recipes. Neither is difficult; one is just time-consuming…
Ali’s Saffron Rice Milanese Style
- 6 T. unsalted butter
- 6- ½ cups homemade beef stock*, divided
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ¼ t. saffron
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt/pepper to taste
*I often find that authentic Italian recipes call for beef marrow broth which is very rich and can make a huge difference in the flavor of the dish. I make my beef stock from marrow bones and call it a day.
- Melt 3 T. butter and ½ cup stock in a deep skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add onion and sauté until translucent.
- Add the rice and stir 2 minutes.
- Pour in the wine and cook until it evaporates.
- Reduce heat to a simmer and add boiling beef stock ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly until each addition is absorbed.* This process may take 45-60 minutes.
- Add saffron that has been dissolved in a little bit of stock.
- When the rice is cooked to a porridge but not gummy consistency, add cheese, remaining butter and salt and pepper to taste.
- Cover and let stand a few minutes before serving.
*Rice should always be covered by a thin veil of stock.
The next recipe is certainly not a classic but make it ~ you will be surprised by its ease and taste.
Ali’s Oven-baked Saffron Rice
- 1- ½ cups Arborio rice
- 5 cups simmering beef stock, divided
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 3 T. unsalted butter
- 2 T. Kosher salt
- 1 t. fresh ground pepper
- ¼ t. saffron steeped in beef stock
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Place the rice and 4 cups of stock in a Dutch oven. Cover and bake for 45 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed.
- Remove from the oven. Add remaining stock, cheese, wine, butter, salt, pepper and saffron.
- Stir vigorously for 2-3 minutes until rice is thick and creamy. Serve immediately.
When you can, use saffron threads steeped in stock or water before adding it to a recipe to release the complex chemicals that give it the unique flavor it has. I caution using saffron powder as it is often mixed with other spices such as paprika or turmeric and may change the flavor of your dish, rendering it inferior! And the next time you prepare mussels, be sure to use the threads in the broth for dipping that crusty bread!