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Saffron: The World's Most Luxurious Spice | Recipe Friday

Wild Crocus flowers.

Wild Crocus flowers.

What adjectives come to mind when you think of spices? Earthy. Bold. Hot. Peppery. What about expensive and delicate? Saffron, sometimes called Red Gold, is the most expensive spice in the world and not many people know how to cook with it or even why it is so expensive. One of Morocco’s leading exports, saffron is actually the stigma, or female flower organ, of the crocus sativus, or the purple Crocus flower.

Saffron is queen! Literally. The irony isn’t lost on us that this luxurious spice is from the female part of the flower. It’s so delicate that it can only be harvested in a month timespan or less, and is also almost exclusively farmed by women. From late October to early November, saffron must be hand farmed with a delicate touch. First the Crocus flowers are harvested in massive bushels. Then, women gather around a large table and extract the three usable strands from each flower. Did we forget to mention that the optimal time to start a saffron harvest is between four and nine-o’clock in the morning?? No sleeping in on this job!

Saffron steeping in warm water.

Saffron steeping in warm water.

Saffron isn’t just a Moroccan export though. Spain, India, Greece and Iran are also home to the plant and some of the most luxurious saffron infused recipes. While red or light orange once dried, adding saffron to a meal transforms a dish into a deep yellow-gold -- think curry and paella. There are a few different methods to extract the flavor of saffron in order to infuse it into your recipe. While a simple simmering of water with saffron threads will do the job, we recommend something a little more magical feeling. Take a minimum of two teaspoons of saffron threads and either one sugar cube or a healthy pinch of coarse salt and grind to a powder with a mortar and pestle. Add ¼ cup of warm water and let the infusion cool before adding it to your recipe. This red-gold mixture will bring a golden glow to any recipe of your choosing.

Spanish Paella with Saffron


3 cups bomba or calasparra rice (arborio risotto works as a substitute)

8 cups chicken stock

1 large onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 large bell pepper, diced

10-15 flat green beans

4 plum tomatoes, diced

0.5 (4 ounce) can tomato paste

15 large shrimp (feel free to add clams, calamari, prawns or mussels as well)

2 -3 lbs rabbit, chicken, or other meat

4 links chorizo sausages, frito sliced into 1 inch pieces

1⁄2 cup fresh parsley

2 -3 tablespoons fresh thyme

1⁄2 tablespoon paprika

1 pinch saffron

3 lemons, quartered


  1. It's best to have all of your ingredients prepared before you start cooking.

  2. Prepare the rabbit or chicken by separating the legs, cutting remaining meat into small slices and lightly salting. (In my area rabbit is seasonal. During the summer and fall I substitute with chicken legs).

  3. I peel my shrimp, leaving only the tail and then salt them. In Spain they tend to leave the shrimp unshelled.

  4. I always try to make my chicken stock from scratch (time permitting), adding a bit of rosemary, a tiny pinch of saffron and a bit of thyme. If you're going to use bouillon, I'd recommend at least heating it up with these herbs and then straining before you start.

  5. Keep your stock hot but not boiling as you cook.

  6. Coat the bottom of your pallera/pan with olive oil.

  7. Brown your chorizo over high heat for 1-2 minutes. Do not fully cook, just get the outside well browned. Set aside. This should add a nice red color and a hell of a flavor to your oil.

  8. Brown the Rabbit for 2-3 minutes. It should not be fully cooked. Set aside.

  9. Brown garlic, onion and bell pepper until they're softened, adding plum tomatoes shortly before the mixture is finished.

  10. Push the vegetables to one side of the pan and on the other add the half can of tomato paste. Caramelize it, flipping it and spreading it until it begins to loosen (1-2 min over hight heat).

  11. Mix all of the vegetables and meats together with the caramelized tomato paste also adding the paprika, parsley and thyme.

  12. Add rice, mixing together and stirring as the rice browns (1-1 1/2) minutes. As the rice browns mix in the saffron. Make sure to break it between your fingers and stir it in to release all those tasty oils.

  13. When the rice is slightly translucent add enough chicken stock to cover the whole mixture. If it's been kept warm, it will begin to boil almost immediately. Lower to a medium heat but keep it at a steady boil.

  14. This is where paella is made and broken. I stir a few times in the first 5-10 minutes, adding broth as necessary to keep the rice fully covered. After this you must let the paella SIT! Let it cook another 10-20 minutes (I find that this step takes longer on a stovetop), adding broth bit by bit to keep the rice submerged until the rice on the top is al dente. Don't worry about rice burning to the bottom, this part (which actually has a name which escapes me at the moment, it's something like socarrat) is a tasty delicacy.

  15. Once you've stirred the paella for the last time and are letting cook, when you have about 8 minutes left to cook lay shrimp on top, turning over after 2-4 minutes to cook other side.

  16. When the rice on top is still quite al dente, take paella off of heat and cover. You must let it sit for 15-20 minutes. I've taken the lid off prematurely and ended up with a crunchy mess. Patience is the key.

  17. Once you're sure it's ready uncover, garnish with lemon wedges and enjoy!