Market Basket: Saffron

Rosemary ... Saffron Threads ... Sage

There wasn’t any springtime produce for sale yet at the Eagle Farmer’s Market when Susan and I shopped after a recent Saturday morning workout. I’d been hankering all week for fresh greens and I was secretly bummed as we nodded appreciatively at the handiwork of several artists and craftsmen on display in many of the stalls. We spied a few local producers of eggs, meat and sausage, and stopped to talk gardening with a couple of growers who offered young starts of cold-weather greens and herbs.

Set smack in the middle of it all was a well-stocked display of locally dried spices from Starlight Herb Company.

Scanning the rows and rows of small spice jars, tiny pods of star anise beckoned alluringly, while the exotic possibilities of garam masala tempted. Numerous dried herbs, hand-crafted dry rubs and sausage seasoning blends teased the culinary imagination.

Then, we both eyed the saffron and smiled at the price: Six dollars for half a gram of rusty red colored crocus stigma. Susan is a seasoned paella pro while, although I have tasted saffron-infused dishes many times, not once have I ever cooked with the costliest spice on earth. I relished the idea of doing some homework and finding out how to use it.

Scanning the internet for suggestions I came across recipes for simple rice dishes and tasty-sounding sauces, as well as more complicated paellas and bouillabaisses. Not wanting to ruin my first attempt at cooking with saffron, I opted to prepare a fairly simple dish and forgo the risk of making a costly mistake involving a stock pot full of seafood.

I found just what I was looking for on the Chicago Sun-Times Web site: a recipe for saffron-scented quinoa pilaf, which I modified in order to use the vegetable broth, mushrooms and ground cumin I had on hand. I also discovered an informative article about the spice on gourmetsleuth.com.

Although I was initially disappointed in the lack of spring produce at the farmer’s market, it ultimately sent me in an unexpected, yet flavorful, direction. As a bonus, my husband, who normally balks at eating quinoa, enjoyed this saffron-infused dish.

Saffron-scented Quinoa Pilaf

Saffron-scented Quinoa Pilaf

(Adapted from “Saffron-scented Quinoa Pilaf” by David Rosengarten, Chicago Sun-Times)

Makes 6 servings

¾ tsp (.5 gram) saffron threads

1 2/3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 cup uncooked quinoa

1 TBL olive oil

1 cup minced onion

2 tsp minced garlic

½ tsp ground cumin

1 cup chopped brown mushrooms

1 bay leaf

Salt (to taste)

3 TBL minced cilantro leaves

2 TBL butter (optional), at room temperature

Place saffron threads in hot chicken or vegetable broth and let steep for 10 minutes.

Rinse quinoa under cold running water; drain well.

Place olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add minced onion. Cook until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add quinoa, garlic and cumin; cook, stirring for 1 minute.

Add reserved saffron-broth mixture, mushrooms and bay leaf. Adjust seasoning by adding salt, if desired. Bring liquid to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook 20 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro and, if desired, butter. Serve immediately.

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