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Thursday, March 31, 2005 03:46 pm

appetite 3-31-05

art1956

When spring rolls around, Chef Michael Higgins thinks of crocuses, but not the kind sprouting up in our yards, adding a purple haze to the landscape. Rather, Higgins’ mind is on the flower that produces saffron, the most precious and expensive spice in the world.

During a demonstration at Greenview Nursery’s annual spring garden show, Higgins — the owner of Maldaner’s — and assistant chef Chip Kennedy prepare several dishes using saffron and other spring produce. As they work, they talk about the uses of saffron and why the spice is so sought-after.

“It’s perfume-y. It brings a smell and taste to a dish that’s very distinct,” Kennedy says. “I like it a lot. People typically think of saffron rice, but it goes well with a lot of things, like lamb or chicken, if you know how to use it correctly.”

A little saffron goes a long way, and Higgins warns people to use it sparingly. An ounce costs between $60 and $150, compared with $7 to $13 for oregano, and if overused, the spice imparts a medicinal flavor.

“It’s easy to overpower a dish with it. You just want to use a pinch. If you like it and think it needs more, you can add more,” Kennedy adds. “You don’t want to throw in a big handful. It’s expensive, but if you’re making a paella dish or a large dish for 50 people, you would use two big pinches, just to perfume it. Depending on what you’re using it for, you never use much of it.”

Higgins says that he buys saffron by the ounce for the steamed mussels he serves this time of year. As he rubs the saffron threads between his fingers, crumbling them over the creamy rice, he explains that when he has time, he prefers to add the saffron to warm chicken broth to let it “bloom” and release its essence.

Saffron, which has no substitute, is prized for its bright orange-yellow color and intense flavor and aroma. It works well with herbs and spices such as cilantro, cinnamon, garlic, rosemary, and thyme.

Commercial saffron is derived from the dried bright-red stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a flower that grows in Greece, India, Iran, and Spain, among other countries. More than 75,000 of these flowers must be picked by hand to produce just one pound of saffron filaments.

Sue Lionberger, owner of Wild Thyme Spices, says that she sells saffron in its whole form, by the gram. A half-gram (about the size of a quarter) costs $4.20. The spice is sold whole to keep the saffron pure. Like most spices and herbs, whole saffron is more powerful than the ground variety; it must be prepared before use through soaking, toasting, or grinding. Ground and powdered saffron are available, but it should be purchased from a reliable shop because it may be diluted with turmeric or other additives. Saffron threads may be crushed with the fingers or a small mortar and pestle, then soaked in liquid such as broth, water or wine for as long as 20 minutes before the infusion is added to a dish.

Although thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves are bigger sellers at her spice store, Lionberger says, many customers seek out saffron after seeing it used on television cooking shows. “We go through quite a bit of it,” she says. “Most of my customers primarily use it in rice dishes and Indian cuisine. I think we sell a lot of it because it’s so hard to find. It’s kind of a bittersweet taste — it’s hard to describe. It brings out the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. I would recommend using it separately and enjoying its flavor, but there are certainly spices that go well with it, such as turmeric.”

Where to find saffron: Wild Thyme Spices, 2625 W. White Oaks Dr., 217-698-0029; Food Fantasies, 1512 W. Wabash, 217-793-8009.

Steamed mussels

Ingredients
One medium red onion, finely chopped
Four garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoon butter
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 cup sweet red vermouth
Pinch of saffron (half-teaspoon of threads)
1 cup water
2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes (one 16-ounce can)
Four scallions, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until soft (but not brown) for six or seven minutes, then add mussels, vermouth, water, tomatoes and saffron. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover and steam mussels for two minutes, until they open. Add butter and serve. Garnish with scallions.
— Courtesy of Maldaner’s (222 S. Sixth St., 217-522-4313)

Vegetable paella

Ingredients
One large Spanish onion, chopped
One red bell pepper, chopped
Three garlic cloves, minced
1 cup frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
2 cups tightly packed fresh spinach
1/2 cup water
2 2/3 cups vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup white basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup frozen lima beans
1/2 cup frozen peas

Directions
Sauté onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil until just wilted. Add artichoke hearts and sauté for two minutes. Add spinach, water, and broth and bring to a boil. Add rice, salt, paprika, and saffron. Stir. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Stir in lima beans and peas, then cover and simmer another 10 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 4. (You may vary the vegetables to suit your taste, but the saffron is a must for its distinctive flavor.)
— Courtesy of Food Fantasies (1512 W. Wabash Ave., 217-793-9037)

Saffron tips

• Store saffron in a cool, dark place. You may wrap it in foil and place it in a tin or jar with a tight lid. Properly stored, saffron will last several years. As it ages, however, its flavor will diminish.

• Saffron does not “boil away” when added at the beginning of the cooking process. The threads continue to release flavor and aroma for 12 hours or more.

• Wooden utensils tend to absorb saffron easily, so avoid using them.

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