TIBETAN saffron (zang hong hua 藏红花) was one of my biggest and most pleasant surprises when I moved back to Shanghai a little over three years ago.
All the saffron I had ever seen previously had been from Iran (the everyday stuff at US$1,500 a kilo), Spain (the premium product), or Kashmir (I once saw this in New York for over US$10,000 a kilo).
And while I knew there was some small production in other parts of southwest Asia and around the Alps I had simply never entertained the possibility that there would be saffron within Chinese borders.
Previous to being given a bag of saffron by my mother after a trip to Tibet I had simply written off saffron as one of those ingredients that I wouldn't be using much in my commitment to locally sourced ingredients in China.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to swear off saffron, I love saffron, I love saffron in ways that are probably unhealthy. The aroma, the flavor, the color - there is simply no substitute for it. Some describe saffron's flavor as earthy and mineral, but I like to imagine saffron is what gold would taste like if it had a flavor that matched its color.
Saffron has long been one of the favored weapons in my culinary arsenal. The color produced was obviously gorgeous but a little pinch of saffron in a dish as it's bubbling away seems to provide a certain dash of je ne sais quoi (I don't know what) that is impossible to replicate.
Being the nerd of all foodlore that I am, I find saffron's historical and cultural uses nearly as fascinating as its culinary applications.
Other than being the single most expensive spice on Earth, saffron also has one of the longest histories with human beings, the earliest record dating back well over 4,000 years. The class yellow of a Buddhist monk's robe was initially derived from saffron though that started to get expensive real soon.
Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes saffron as a treatment for depression and menstrual issues but the health benefits of saffron have long been recognized by numerous cultures, both present and in the past. There is still ongoing research into some of the chemicals in saffron that may posses antioxidants and slow the growth of cancer cells.
The medicine though, I leave to doctors. For me saffron is special just as it is, and it makes the perfect focal point for a simple dish like risotto. Just like truffles, the glory of saffron is honored best by simple preparation.
Saffron risotto (serves 4)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, 1cm dice (about 80g)
1.5 cups of risotto rice, arborio or carnaroli (about 270g)
1 cup of white wine, or white vermouth
1g saffron threads
1liter of vegetable stock
2 tbsp butter (30g)
4 tbsp grated parmesan (30g)
Salt and pepper
1. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, avoid non-stick pans if you can. Add oil and then onions to hot pan and begin sweating out the onion with a little bit of salt and pepper.
2. After 6-7 minutes, the onions should be soft and translucent but there shouldn't be any color on them.
3. Add the rice and continue to sauté in the onions and oil for another 4-5 minutes, or until the outside rim of the rice begin to turn translucent.
4. Add wine, or vermouth, and turn heat up to medium-high. Stir quickly to break apart the rice, if you're a traditionalist you may insist on doing this with a wooden spoon, I haven't really tasted a difference.
5. At this point add the saffron. I like adding when the wine is being cooked off because I like to imagine there are a few flavor esters in the saffron that are alcohol soluble, meaning I get more out of my saffron if it's extracted in the booze and the water (stock) to follow.
6. Continue stirring vigorously while the alcohol evaporates. Your goal here is to rub the rice grains against each other in order to extract more starch out of the rice. I was always trained to cook my risotto completely dry and starting to stick to the pan before adding the next phase of liquid and it's never failed me.
7. When your rice has dried and is just beginning to stick to the pan, add one quarter of the stock. Many recipes tells you to heat your stock but honestly I've never found a difference in quality when using hot or cold stock, I'd personally rather save the cleanup so I leave my stock out at room temperature.
8. Again stir vigorously as the stock evaporates. Add the second quarter of stock after the rice has begun to dry once again. Repeat with the second and third quarters of stock.
9. After adding the third quarter of stock you should start tasting your risotto for texture and seasoning. An ideal finished product is liquid enough to run on a plate but not watery. The grains should be distinct and toothsome, neither crunchy nor congee.
10. Add the butter and cheese and beat with your spoon until the risotto is a rich shiny golden mass, adjust viscosity once again, double-check seasoning and serve as either an appetizer by itself or as an accompaniment to something like the glazed lamb shoulders shown in the picture.