Spanish Cooking With Saffron

In spanish cooking, saffron, an expensive and favorite culinary herb flavors and colors many dishes. It comes from thousands of crocus flower stigmas.

Saffron originated in Arabia and was brought to Spain sometime in the eighth century. Since then, saffron has been associated with Spanish cuisine, although the spice is also a favorite addition to French soups and Milanese risotto.

This reddish spice is probably the most expensive culinary herb because an ounce of saffron is actually 200,000 dried crocus flower stigmas -- each hand-gathered crocus flower has only three stigmas. Nevertheless, a pinch of saffron is enough to lend a distinctive flavor and reddish orange color to pastries, soups, and rice dishes.

The reddish color of saffron is due to its carotenoids crocin and crocetin; the saffron stigmas also contain the aromatic essential oil called safranal. In the herbal therapy world, a couple of drops of saffron oil (made from a few dried stigmas in a cup of vegetable oil) in a glass of water is recommended to alleviate sluggishness and general fatigue.

In Spain, the spice is a must in fish stews, and in practically all dishes highlighting mussels, shrimps, squid, and other seafood. In general, saffron goes well with dishes that also contain fennel, garlic, and white wine.

Most of the Spanish rice pilaf dishes are yellowish in color due to saffron. The stigmas are usually steeped in the broth that is added to the dishes, or pre-softened in warm water and blended into the dish just before serving for the touch of color and hint of flavor.

When buying dried saffron threads, choose the most reddish-brown color available. These may be more expensive but you can be assured that they are not adulterated. Buy whole threads or strands because they have a richer flavor and higher integrity than the powdered kind. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Remember to use saffron sparingly because too much can make the dish somewhat bitter. Large quantities of saffron are also not recommended because of the concentration of its essential components that can make some people feel ill.

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