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