So much that’s delightful in Sicilian food derives from the days of Arab rule.
They brought to Sicily such culinary wonders as cinnamon, pomegranates, artichokes, pistachio, sesame, aniseed, oranges, watermelon and rice. But their greatest gift, I reckon, is saffron. I admit to bias when it comes to saffron, it’s a marvel!
But you must have real saffron!
Don’t be fooled by substitutes
Saffron comes from the dried stigmas of the autumn-flowering Crocus sativus linnaeus. Stigmas are picked by hand over a six week period, with an equally hands-on intensive drying process to follow, so true saffron is worth its weight in gold.
Check the colour of the saffron. High quality saffron threads will appear dark red – the redder, the better, and it should smell sweet, with a sort of floral aroma.
Have you seen American saffron or Mexican saffron on the shop shelves? Beware, it’s NOT saffron but safflower, the plant from which we get safflower oil. Yes, the flowers of this daisy family are edible and, yes, they will add a yellow colour to your recipe but they have no flavour and you can’t substitute them for saffron. You may as well use crushed yellow crayons.
The same goes for turmeric, used in curries and chutneys, a pungent little spice but NOT saffron.
If a recipe suggests you substitute turmeric for saffron, be aware that all you’re getting is some yellow colour in your food. You may as well use a tin of curry powder, or those same yellow crayons.
If you’ve ever cooked with saffron you’ll never mistake fake for real. It’s probably the most pervasive, penetrating and totally unmistakable flavour imaginable.
I recommend Spanish saffron. Coupe, La Mancha, Rio or Marosa. Or the top quality threads from Iran. You can buy good Persian (Iranian) saffron online from Saffron Dust
Cooking with Saffron
Crush and soak saffron to release its flavour
Saffron threads can easily be crumbled between your fingers, although for a more uniform powder, use a mortar and pestle. There’s a great deal of pleasure in using a mortar and pestle but you don’t have to take my word for it, try it and you’ll see. You’ll feel an affinity with all the cooks in all the world from every age in history.
Count threads before crushing. A “pinch” is about 20 medium saffron threads
Saffron needs moisture and warmth to release its flavour. Soak the threads in hot (not boiling) liquid for 5 to 15 minutes. As the saffron soaks, the distinctive aroma will tell you that your saffron is ready. Then add both the saffron and the liquid to the recipe.
Buy threads, not powder. Saffron powder, apart from hiding its real nature (it could easily be mixed with turmeric) will fade pretty quickly, but saffron threads will last for ages if kept enclosed and dry. Some people keep saffron for over a year but I’ve never been able to keep mine long. The temptation is too much.
You can soak the saffron in stock or wine for an even richer flavour.