Pan of La Mancha
Henri muses on paella, saffron and the sex organs of crocuses
A friend recently gave me a small plastic box of saffron threads that he brought back from Spain. Can you tell me what it is and what I should do with it?
P.S. We absolutely adore your column. Last Sunday morning I made your coffee cake, and we ate it in bed while drinking gin fizzes and watching Judy in A Star Is Born. You were right: It is to die for.
Saffron is a product of the crocus plant, whose stigmas, the threads, are hand harvested and then dried over the embers of a dying fire. About 100,000 of the threads—each flower has just three—make a pound of saffron, which retails here in the States for $30-$40 an ounce.
While experts disagree on where the best saffron comes from—my favorite supplier swears by Iranian saffron—all agree that the brighter and redder the better and that the best Spanish saffron comes from the La Mancha region. They also agree that powdered saffron, while convenient, is vastly inferior.
Saffron is used in many Mediterranean-style dishes—and even used to make tea—but it’s most often associated with paella, the traditional Spanish dish made with rice, seafood, chicken, pork and vegetables. In fact, most chefs will tell you that the only ingredient absolutely essential to paella—except for the rice—is saffron, which gives the rice its golden hue and distinctive flavor.
Best known in the Mediterranean coastal cities of Valencia and Barcelona, paella is served throughout the Iberian peninsula, often after an antipasto plate and before the main course. However, it’s filling enough—and contains enough different ingredients—that it can easily be a meal in itself, although a light salad complements it nicely.
A well-cooked paella is a work of art. The chef often brings it to the table and holds it up for all to see, usually earning a round of applause. While it’s traditionally cooked outside over an open fire, you can also cook it on a kettle barbecue or gas grill or inside on the stove. Ideally, you’d have access to a specially designed paella pan—large (13 to 18 inches in diameter), with sloped sides and two loop handles, although any large skillet will work. Best to cook paella while sipping a glass of Torres Sangre de Toro or Gloria Ferrer Blanc du Blancs and listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
The recipe below is a variation of the traditional Barcelona paella. Other common ingredients include string beans, white beans, snails, rabbit, pork ribs, scallops, lobster and veal.
Vanilla, Saffron Imports in San Francisco, (415) 648-8990 or saffron.com will ship saffron overnight to Chico for $35 an ounce. Check out its website for more information on saffron production and use.
Good luck, Mark.
P.S. Merci beaucoup for the kind words about my column, and I’m glad you enjoyed the coffee cake. It’s also très bon with mimosas and The Pajama Game.
1/3 cup olive oil • 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 each, green and red bell peppers, sliced
1 onion, sliced • 2 tomatoes, cubed
1/2 chicken, cut into chunks
12 pork sausages • 12 mussels • 12 clams
1/2 lb. each, squid, cut into rings; large shrimp; cod or similar whitefish
3 cups small- or medium-grain rice
pinch of saffron (six or eight threads)
6 canned artichoke hearts, halved
1/2 cup of peas • 1 lemon
Heat olive oil in large skillet and sauté garlic. Add chicken and sausages and cook until brown. Remove. Add peppers and onions and sauté until soft. Add tomatoes and cook until reduced. Mix well and add the browned chicken and sausages and stir in the rice, continuing to cook for about five minutes. Clean clams and mussels and boil in separate pan until shells open. Dissolve saffron in a half-cup of warm water. Add the squid, whitefish, peas, seven cups boiling water and the water with saffron in it. Stir well. Take the clams and mussels from water and remove a half shell from each one. Push part of each mussel, clam and artichoke into mixture, lay the shrimp on top, and cook for another 20 minutes or until rice is done. Garnish with lemon wedges. Especially divine with a good Pinot Noir or Merlot.