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Saffron: Health Benefits, Uses and Recipes

Dormivit in sacco croci (He has slept in a bed of saffron) is a Latin expression meaning, “He has a very light heart”, a reference to the enlivening effect of this most precious of spices. One early writer even warned against ingesting too much saffron lest one should “die of excessive joy!”

Saffron is expensive because it requires up to 400,000 of the orange-red stigmas of the Crocus sativus to make a mere one-kilogram of the spice. Each flower has only three stigmas, which must be handpicked at dawn during a brief two-week blossoming period in late October.

The saffron crocus grows from five to nine inches tall, with long thin leaves and lilac colored flowers. It is a perennial in zones 6-10 and today is cultivated commercially on a large scale only in India and in seven of Spain’s 52 provinces. If wintered indoors in a cool place the saffron crocus is easy to grow, even in Canada. It takes about six plants to generate enough stigmas for one recipe. Harvest them early in the morning and dry by simply placing the stigmas on paper towels and storing them in a warm, dry place for a few days until they are brittle. They will keep in a small, sealed glass jar for up to five years.

The flowers of the saffron crocus do not close at night and the stigmas protrude beyond the petals. These features distinguish it from the highly poisonous Colchicum autumnale or Autumn Crocus.

The word saffron is from the Arabic, assfar or zafaran, meaning yellow. The botanical name, sativus, is Latin for cultivated.

Drinking saffron tea will allegedly induce clairvoyance. Also in the magical realm saffron is supposed to be lust provoking and was often added to love sachets. The Roman aristocracy perfumed their homes and baths with it. In Greek myth, the gods wore robes dyed with the spice. The red pigment of the stigmas supposedly developed when Hermes, the messenger god of ancient Greece, felt remorseful after accidentally killing his friend, Crocus. As his blood spilled on to the ground, Hermes turned the drops into the saffron crocus.

Medicinally, saffron has fallen out of favor as cheaper and more effective herbs have become available. During the Middle Ages however, saffron was popular as a treatment for period pain and uterine bleeding and to bring on menstruation. Pregnant women should be wary of ingesting saffron beyond small culinary amounts as in large doses the spice may induce abortion. Saffron has been used to treat indigestion and is still used in Chinese herbal medicine to relieve abdominal pain. Some herbalists do recommend saffron to treat high blood pressure as it contains a blood pressure-lowering agent called crocetin. There is a statistical low incidence of heart disease in Spain, which some people attribute to the nation’s high consumption of the spice.

Saffron is used in Arabic, Indian and especially in Mediterranean cuisine. It particularly complements fish and seafood and is an essential ingredient in French bouillabaisse and Spanish paella. It also goes well with mild cheeses, eggs, rice and other meat dishes. Powdered saffron is considerably stronger than saffron threads, but the powdered variety is frequently adulterated, so purists stick to the threads. Whether using the threads or the powder, avoid using too much of the spice as this will result in a medicinal taste. Steep the spice in a little hot water before adding to the food, and then add both the saffron and the water.

To accompany Indian food, try the following Saffron Rice:

· 1 cup Basmati rice
· 2 cups of water
· 1 Tbsp. butter
· ¼ tsp. saffron threads (or one eighth tsp. of powdered saffron)
· 3 inches of broken cinnamon sticks (pieces should be large enough to facilitate easy removal prior to serving)
· 3 whole cloves
· ½ an onion, chopped
· 4 whole cardamom seeds
· ½ tsp. salt (or more to taste)

Pour about 2 Tbsp. of boiling water on the saffron and allow to infuse for 10 minutes. Melt the butter in a pan and add the cinnamon, cloves and onions. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the rice, water, cardamom, salt, saffron and its water. Bring to the boil then cover and simmer for about 25 minutes – about 45 minutes if you use long grain brown rice.

In France, rabbit is often cooked with mustard. Following is a variation of a traditional French rabbit recipe using saffron as the spice with a resultant agreeable color and flavour.

Rabbit with Sherry, Cream & Saffron

· 1 rabbit, cut into six or eight pieces
· ¾ cup of heavy cream
· ¼ cup medium dry sherry
· 1-2 cloves of garlic
· 4 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
· 1 tsp. salt (or more to taste)
· Pinch of cayenne
· ¼ tsp. saffron threads (or 1/8 tsp. saffron powder).

Pour about 2 Tbsp. of boiling water over the saffron in a small dish and allow this to infuse for 10 minutes. Place the rabbit in a reasonably tight fitting, ovenproof, lidded casserole. Place all the other ingredients into a blender – including the saffron and water after infusion – and blend well. Pour over rabbit. Cook in preheated oven at 350F for about 60 minutes until well done. Check for doneness before serving. Rabbit can take a deceivingly long time to cook. Overcooked rabbit done in a sauce is perfectly acceptable. Undercooked rabbit is not. Serve with rice.

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