Posts Tagged ‘risotto alla milanese’
I enjoy meandering through the aisles of Asian markets because there is always something new that I’ve never seen before, and I will often purchase something without even knowing how it’s used, just out of curiosity.
So, I was in an Asian supermarket the other day, browsing the fare, as usual. I was in the spice section and saw a plastic package with some reddish stuff in it. I had a suspicion of what it was supposed to be, so I picked it up. Sure enough, it was labeled “saffron.” One ounce for a whopping 99 cents! I had to take a picture of it because I couldn’t believe my eyes. And the picture doesn’t do it justice. This is the skunky, dusty looking stuff that they were trying to pass off as saffron.
Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of saffron knows that there is no way you can get it—any amount—for 99 cents. Those with a little more advanced knowledge of the spice know that it simply does not look like this. I can’t even imagine what, in reality, this stuff actually was.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Market prices vary but 1 gram of saffron can cost anywhere from $10 (on the cheap side) to $75 for Spanish La Mancha. Kalustyan’s in NYC sells 1-ounce jars of Persian Saffron for $200. Amazing that this store was able to magically sell 1 ounce of saffron for 99 cents. They probably took a miniscule amount of saffron dust, mixed it with other stuff, and called it saffron.
The adulteration of saffron is an age-old felony, ever since the luxury item was introduced to Europe by the Arabs in the 7th or 8th century (and probably long before that, too). The reason it’s so expensive is that harvesting it is labor-intensive. Each strand is one of only a few stigmas of a crocus flower. The stigmas are hand-picked and dried and it takes about 75,000 flowers tomake one pound of dried saffron.
In Italian, saffron is called zafferano; in French it is zafran. All three words come from the Arabic word za’faaran, meaning “yellow,” which is the color saffron imbues in food. This color is prized throughout the world—for example, in India, Buddhists wear saffron-colored robes.
Greek mythology tells us that a mortal man named Crocos fell in love with the nymph named Smilax, but she did not return his love, and for some odd reason of the Greek mythology kind, he was turned into a purple crocus flower.
Saffron has been used throughout history in numerous ways: it was used as currency; it was used to scent the baths and public halls of both Greece and Rome; Cleopatra used it in her make-up; and it’s been used for medicinal purposes. And the story of risotto alla Milanese, the classic Italian rice dish? Legend has it that that a jilted lover wanted to ruin the wedding of his ex-love and her fiancé by throwing saffron into the risotto to be served at the reception. The groom, a glass maker for Milan’s Duomo who loved to add saffron to his glass pastes for color; throwing saffron into the wedding risotto was the jilted lover’s attempt at mocking the couple. Of course, it ended up being a hit.
In the Middle Ages, saffron was more valuable that gold. One pound of it could be traded for a plow horse, and anyone passing off diluted saffron was burned at the stake. It is mentioned in the Bible, the Iliad, ancient Egyptian papyruses, and in the writings of the Greek historian Pliny. On Crete, there is a fresco that dates to 1700 B.C. on the palace at Knossos showing a worker gathering saffron. Saffron has been used for medicinal purposes and to make perfume and dye. Ancient Greeks used it to perfume the public baths. Romans drank saffron before alcoholic binges to ward off hangovers and then slept on saffron-stuffed pillows for a good night’s sleep. The Phoenicians used it to flavor love cakes, shaped like moons, and dedicated them to Astoreth, the goddess of fertility. It is said that Cleopatra used saffron as make-up. In Asia, saffron represented hospitality, while in India, people marked themselves with it to denote their wealthy status. At one time, it was thought that saffron was a remedy for, and could prevent, the plague. Called “vegetable gold” in some parts of the world, it is used in modern aromatherapy to increase energy. [This paragraph from What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking the Vegetarian Way]
Rules for purchasing saffron:
- Never buy powered saffron. This is usually cut with inferior products. Only buy threads. Which leads to…
- Don’t buy packages that look as if some of the threads have been crushed to a powder.
- Threads should be a vibrant red.
- Threads should feel dry and crush easily.
- It should smell somewhat floral. Do not buy it if it smells moldy.
Here is my recipe for Risotto alla Milanese. Enjoy!
Risotto alla Milanese
Copyright © Roberta Roberti. All rights reserved.
From What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking the Vegetarian Way
5 cups hot vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron strands
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
Salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup grated parmigiano
Keep the stock simmering in a saucepot over very low heat. Take 2 or 3 tablespoons of the stock, place it in a small bowl, and steep the saffron in it. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the rice is translucent around the edges, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook for another 3 minutes.
Add ½ cup (about a large ladleful) of the stock to the rice mixture, stir it in, and let it be absorbed by the rice. Continue adding stock, ½ cup at a time and stirring it in. Allow each addition to become absorbed before adding more. Stir occasionally. After the second or third addition, add the saffron infusion, salt, and pepper.
After 4 or 5 additions, begin testing the risotto for doneness. Stop adding liquid when the rice is creamy and tender, yet firm to the bite. If there is not enough broth, add hot water to the stock pan and bring it to a boil. Add the water to the risotto, a little at a time, until the rice is cooked. Total cooking time should be 20 to 30 minutes.
When the risotto is cooked, remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese. Spoon it into individual serving bowls and serve immediately.
Leftovers can be used for rice balls or stuffing. Store tightly sealed in the refrigerator 3 to 5 days.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.