Have a Persian stand by you as you carelessly sprinkle threads of saffron directly into your pot of risotto-in-progress, and he or she will cringe at the sight. Being a Persian married to an Italian myself, I found the need to immediately speak up.
This summer, I was reunited with my entire family in Italy, including my mother. She gifted my mother-in-law with a packet of Iranian saffron, who looked at me with a sparkle in her eyes and said, “Risotto Milanese”. She wanted us to cook together, after all the crazy subsides and our week of travels is done with. In an attempt of disaster prevention, I explained, through gestures, broken Italian, and a game of charades, how exactly to prepare the saffron for utilization, properly.
Saffron is an expensive spice, the most expensive in the world. I remember my mother treating it like it was sacred, not letting any specks of it go to waste. By weight, it costs more than gold. And rightfully so, with a strong aroma, and flavors of honey and hay. It has the Midas touch, staining everything it touches into deep shades of yellow. It’s labor intensive. Flowers bloom only in the fall, and each flower springs merely three threads. The fragile stigmas are then removed from the center of the crocus flower, one by one, handpicked ever so carefully.
Today, Iran accounts for above 90% of the world’s saffron. It’s generously used in Persian cuisine, to speckle rice with grains of gold, in stews, desserts, and as home remedies for multiple symptoms. We can argue that this gives us immediate credibility on lecturing the rest of the world on the how to’s of saffron. And we all do it the same way, because our mother’s and grandmother’s did it that way (and yes, sometimes the men in the family as well). While there are many things the newer generations are questioning, like arranged marriages, but the preparation of saffron is not one of them.
Saffron must be brewed. This will extract the most benefits and flavor from the spice. The brewed liquid can be stored in the fridge, in an airtight container for a week, if not more.
You will need:
a small mortar and pestle. I, along with every Iranian I know, reserve one made of marble just for saffron.
a nip of sugar. This is primarily to achieve the best grind. Traditionally, a fragment off of a sugarloaf will be used, but a sugar cube will do as well. We’ve recently moved across the country and not yet having any visits from my mother, I’m running low on my stock of Iranian staples. I found myself in a crunch and used a pinch of organic cane sugar I had brought back from Hawai’i and it worked just fine. But don’t tell my grandmothers.
hot water. You don’t want the water to be boiling at the time of use, for, saffron is very delicate. I let my water come to a boil, then give it some time to calm down.
and saffron, of course.
Add a pinch of saffron to your mortar with a sugar cube.
Once it is in powder form, steep a pinch in hot water. You can store away the rest of your sugared saffron powder in your spice cabinet in a small close-topped jar for later use.
After approximately 10-20 minutes of steeping, you can use your orange liquid as per recipe calls. The remaining liquid will stay just fine in the fridge, in an airtight container. A little does go a long way.
Add a few teaspoons of the leftover saffron liquid to your meat sauce, rice pudding, or afternoon pot of tea.