Saffron: Spice is so ‘mellow yellow’

Friday, November 1, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 44

This past week, Don and I dined at one of our favorite restaurants. In honor of autumn, I had to have a “fall food” dish and chose butternut squash cannelloni in saffron cream sauce. I made an excellent choice.

So, as you can probably guess, that’s the recipe I have for this week. Yes, it’s lengthy and uses ingredients you don’t normally have on hand, but it’s fun and rewarding.

Maybe you’ve never used saffron because you think it’s too expensive. It is, but not so much that you need not use it – at least once.

Saffron is considered one of the most expensive spices by weight in the world. It comes from the bright red stigmas of the saffron crocus flower. The stigmas are the female part of the flower, and in a good year – when the saffron plant produces many flowers – stigmas are plenty, as each flower produces three.

It takes about 80,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron, with a cost in the range of $600 to $2,000 a pound. Stigmas are gathered when the violet-blue flowers open and each stigma is about 25-to-30 millimeters long. I don’t know if I would want to be a crocus stigmas collector laborer. Sounds like a backbreaking and complicated job.

Saffron also is used for many medical purposes, including asthma, coughing, whooping cough, and as an expectorant. It’s also used for insomnia, cancer, atherosclerosis, intestinal gas, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, fright, shock, spitting up blood, pain, heartburn and dry skin.

Uses for Saffron you might not know:

  • Saffron is also used as an aphrodisiac and to induce sweating.
  • Some people apply saffron directly to the scalp for baldness.
  • In manufacturing, saffron extracts are used as fragrance in perfumes and as a dye for cloth.
  • The plant originally came from Asia, where it’s still mainly produced. Iran accounts for 90 percent of the total harvested worldwide.

Fun things you might not know:

  • Donovan’s hit song “Mellow Yellow” features the line: “I’m just mad about Saffron/Saffron’s mad about me.”
  • The most famous dish in the world is saffron risotto, which comes from the Italian city of Milan.
  • A main ingredient of magic potions in ancient times, saffron was sprinkled between the sheets and brewed in tea to make someone fall in love or to dispel melancholic thoughts.
  • In the region of Oxiana, between Iran and Afghanistan, only little girls are allowed to pick saffron, and they have to be virgins or younger than 13, or so the story goes.
  • From Cleopatra onwards, it is said that the aroma lingering on the skin after a hot saffron bath is enough to make any lover go mad with desire.
  • Also named “angel hair” because of its color, the word saffron derives from Arabic: “Za’feran” and “da asfar,” meaning yellow.

There – things you didn’t know about saffron.

Saffron cream sauce

1 cup of chicken stock

1 cup of heavy cream

2 pinches of saffron threads

1 clove of garlic, smashed

1 pinch of cumin

1/4 teaspoon of paprika

1 tablespoon of cornstarch

2 tablespoons of warm water

Combine the chicken stock and heavy cream; bring to a boil while stirring gently. Add remaining ingredients except cornstarch and water. Simmer for five minutes. Thicken with cornstarch and water mixture. Remove the garlic clove and serve.

Butternut Squash Cannelloni with Saffron Cream Sauce

1 butternut squash, roasted (see below)

1 clove of garlic

1 tablespoon of lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons of unsalted butter

4 leeks, finely sliced

1/4 cup of Portobello mushrooms, chopped

1/4 cup of Shiitake mushrooms, chopped

1/2 cup of coarsely chopped hazelnuts

6 ounces of ricotta cheese

1/2 cup of pecorino cheese, finely grated, plus extra to garnish

1 tablespoon of fresh Thyme leaves, chopped

12 pieces of Lasagna pasta (approximately 5x4 inches each)

To roast the squash

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Peel and cube the squash to make about four cups. In a large bowl, combine the squash, clove of garlic (minced), one tablespoon of lemon juice, and the salt and pepper. Mix well and place on the roasting pan. Roast in the oven until tender - about 40 minutes. Set aside until ready to use.

To make the Cannelloni

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Soak the lasagna pasta in enough cool water to cover until pliable. Remove from the water and place between wet towels until needed.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a frying pan; sauté the leeks, hazelnuts, and mushrooms for five minutes, or until soft. Drain.

Mix the leeks and mushroom mixture, ricotta, pecorino, thyme, and butternut squash together in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Spoon some of the mixture onto one of the pieces of pasta, roll into a cylinder, and place into a baking dish. Repeat with the remaining pasta sheets. (Make sure the pasta cylinders are in a single layer in the baking dish.) Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Serve with Saffron Cream Sauce. (See recipe at left)