Saffron is a spice made from the dried stigmas of a type of crocus flower that blooms in the fall. It’s the most expensive spice in the world due to the labor-intensive process of hand-plucking enough of the delicate threads to reach a commercially marketable weight. My friend might bring me a tiny tube with a cork stopper or a one-inch transparent box containing a tangle of the red, brittle filaments. I hoard them like gold.
Of course, the problem with hoarding spices is that they never actually get used. Meanwhile, their potency weakens over time. In the case of my saffron stash, this translates to a major devaluation. So now I've vowed to use my saffron whenever possible. Perhaps the most famous use is in Spain’s national dish: paella. In this one-pan meal, rice is scented with saffron and studded with an assortment of meat, seafood, and vegetables.
Here’s our favorite recipe. The kids gobble it up every time. The only thing they pick out are the artichokes, which are deposited directly onto my plate.
If you don’t have saffron and don’t want to spring for it, don’t worry, the dish will still be delicious without it. Just increase the amount of paprika. But if you already have a saffron stash somewhere, stop hoarding it and use it!
1 lb. uncooked medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, shells reserved
1 quart chicken stock (or water)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. chorizo, cut into bite-sized pieces
6 chicken thighs or drumsticks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pinches saffron threads, crushed (about 1/4 tsp.)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 bay leaves
1-1/2 cups uncooked rice (short-grain rice is best, but long-grain will also work)
1 tsp. sweet or smoked paprika
14-oz. can artichoke hearts, drained, quartered
1 cup frozen peas, defrosted, drained
1 pound mussels, scrubbed, debearded
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Combine the shrimp shells and chicken stock (or water) in a pan, and simmer for 30 minutes while preparing the other ingredients.
Heat a large paella pan or your largest skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and sauté the chorizo until brown, about 5 minutes for precooked sausage, longer for the fresh variety. Meanwhile, season the chicken with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Remove the chorizo to a plate when done. Add the chicken to the hot pan and brown it well, turning occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Add the chicken to the plate of chorizo and set aside.
Strain the shrimp shells from the broth and discard. Add the saffron to the hot broth and let steep until ready to use.
To the large skillet, add the onion and green pepper, and sauté for several minutes. Add the garlic and continue to stir occasionally until the vegetables are soft and starting to brown, several minutes more. Stir in the tomatoes and bay leaves and cook another 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir until gently toasted, 1-2 minutes. Stir the shrimp-and-saffron-scented broth into the rice. Add the paprika, a teaspoon of salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Stir and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Add the chicken and chorizo to the pan. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil, decrease the heat to low or medium-low, and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the rice is just tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. (Check to make sure the rice on the bottom isn’t burning.) Scatter the artichokes and peas on top. Then press the shrimp and mussels into the hot rice. Cover again and cook 8-10 minutes more until the shrimp are cooked and pink and the mussels have opened. Discard any unopened mussels as well as the bay leaves. Serve with lemon wedges.
Source: Adapted from Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a decent honeydew in my life. To me, they always taste like cucumbers pretending to be melons. I’m just no good at picking them out, and when I ask the produce guy to pick one out for me, it's barely any better. It’s disappointing because I read food blogs where the writers wax poetic about the nectar-perfect honeydew they just tasted and I want to experience the sweetness of which they speak.
So I tried growing one myself.
It was the last melon plant in the school garden to set fruit, and then it just took forever and ever to grow. It pretty much didn’t change size at all in September despite the heat and my attentive watering. With a hard frost projected last weekend, I finally had to pull the plug on my runty garden-grown honeydew. It didn’t smell even remotely fragrant, but I cut it up anyway. It was very green inside. Too green. I tasted it. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste any worse than supermarket honeydews, but it was clearly underripe. Rather than throw the whole thing in the compost, I tried something. I tossed the green melon cubes with 1 tablespoon of honey, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice, and 1/2 teaspoon lime zest. Wow, what a difference! The 12YO and I ate the whole melon in less than a minute. OK, the melon was tiny, but still, it was suddenly delicious!
Now I know what to do the next time a melon lets me down, although I’d probably double the syrup for a full-sized honeydew. Who knows, maybe it would work for cucumbers, too!
Turkeys aren’t the only visitors to the school garden. Here are some other garden friends:
A milk snake. I was gathering ground cherries from underneath the branches when we took each other by surprise. She was so pretty—the picture doesn’t do her justice. She was much more strikingly colored in person (or maybe surprise sharpens the contrast in your mind’s eye). Her head was elevated up off the ground in an S-shape, probably a defensive posture, poised to strike if necessary.
I’m embarrassed to admit that the first thing I did was very carefully remove my phone from my pocket, gingerly type in my passcode with my thumb, and snap a photo before she could flee. Probably my first instinct should have been to move my other hand out of harm's way, the one holding the branch directly over her head. But I was bolstered by something that the 12YO repeats often: There are no poisonous snakes in Massachusetts. (Actually, according to the University of Massachusetts, there are in fact copperheads and timber rattlesnakes in certain secluded areas of the state, but they’re so few and reclusive that, for all practical purposes, the statement holds true for suburban Boston anyway.)
But even non-venomous snakes can bite. She didn’t, luckily. I lowered the branch as gently as possible and let her be.
Here’s a black swallowtail caterpillar on the parsley. He picked a good host plant since parsley grows like crazy in the school garden. We have plenty to spare. I can’t find the photo I took of an adult black swallowtail butterfly earlier in the season, but they’re really pretty and look like this.
That’s a bumblebee resting on the top of the stake. I thought it was dead because I never see bees stop moving for even one second. It wasn’t dead, just a slacker bee. The queen will not be happy when she receives my report!
We have plenty of pollinators in the garden: bumblebees, honeybees, yellow jackets, and one gigantic black wasp that seems to love the oregano flowers. The latter turns out to be a type of solitary digger wasp that feeds its larvae by parasitizing grasshoppers.
Hey, grasshopper. Stay away from the oregano plant!
I also saw a raccoon ambling about in broad daylight. He didn’t look too rabid, just fat and unconcerned by my presence. I’m moving him up to Suspect #1 for this summer’s corn atrocities. No photos for you, Masked Corn Thief. You shan’t be immortalized on this blog!!! (Post to self-destruct in 10…9…8…7…)
We saw a gaggle of turkeys in the school garden yesterday, and it reminded me of a funny story. Back in the spring, I had a kindergarten class outside getting ready to plant some carrots and radishes. We were sitting in a circle on the grass talking about the rules of the garden—how if you pay attention and walk instead of run, you can actually see lots of different wildlife. One of the little boys gestured over toward the back of the school and said, like that? He pointed at what appeared to be a very large wild turkey going through its death throes in plain view of the children. Somehow I had failed to notice this spectacle during my lecture about being aware of your environment.
Seeing turkeys in the school garden is pretty commonplace, but this particular turkey was flapping his wings, kicking his legs, and flopping over in a violent, unpredictable fashion. I explained that it was a wild turkey and he was just taking a nap. The turkey was clearly not taking a nap, but it was the best I could do on short notice. I didn’t want them all running over and witnessing nature’s brutal truths firsthand. Let the turkey die in peace!
But the turkey wouldn’t die. He continued flailing about for quite some time. It was very distracting as I attempted to take the kids on a tour of the garden plants. They kept wandering over to spy on the turkey. He’s just dreaming, I assured them. Maybe he’s going for gold in the Turkey Olympics!! But I fully expected to have a dead turkey on our hands at any moment. This is not what people want out of their school garden, I can assure you. And yet nature isn’t always the nurturing, life-sustaining wonderland we want it to be.
About ten minutes later while we were planting seeds, I witnessed the bird get up and walk away, purposefully and with a surprising amount of dignity considering what had just happened. Look, he woke up, shouted one of the kids. After they all went back inside, I walked over to the spot where the turkey had been. It was a sandy spot literally inches from the back of the school with a shallow, turkey-sized circular pit. And then it dawned on me. He was taking a bath! Have you ever seen sparrows and other small birds taking dust baths? They’ll flap around in a sandy patch of ground for a little while, and then fly away, leaving a small dusty depression behind. Sometimes they’ll congregate in small groups and take turns. It’s cute when the birds are small, but take it from me, it’s just plain alarming with a full-sized turkey.
I’m glad to know the local turkeys take personal hygiene so seriously. Plus now I have a more plausible explanation for the turkey’s behavior—something better than the world’s most restless, tormented nap!
As the tomatoes taper off this fall, I’m bidding them a fond farewell with this recipe for fresh salsa or pico de gallo. This is my current favorite homemade red salsa (for my favorite green sauce or salsa verde, go here).
With tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, and cilantro straight from the garden, it doesn’t get any fresher than this. We usually devour all the salsa with tortilla chips or maybe we'll save a little for huevos rancheros. But my Venezuelan friend recently turned me on to arepas (fried corn cakes stuffed with cheese), so I gave those a try. I admit I just used the recipe on the back of the bag of corn meal (basically mix 2 cups precooked white corn meal with 3 cups water and 1 tsp. salt). I fried up the patties, split them, and stuffed them with shredded cheddar, which melted almost immediately from the residual heat.
Topped with fresh salsa, these had me smiling all afternoon.
Pico de Gallo
Recipe can be doubled and tripled. Ole!
1 onion, finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, seeds removed, minced
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (optional)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or more to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
Soak the chopped onion in the juice of 1/2 lime for 15 minutes. Fold in the tomatoes, jalapeño, cilantro, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, and lime if necessary. Dig in with tortilla chips or spoon over arepas.