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Saffron - so expensive - so delicious

Exotic and precious, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. A pound of the highest grade saffron "Coupe," were you able to find it in this country, would set you back nearly $16,000. Historically used as a dye and cosmetic, saffron adds not just color but a distinctive aroma to otherwise bland foods like fish and pasta. You can't create dishes like risotto Milanese, bouillabaisse, or paella without it. Many Mediterranean, Mid-eastern and Asian dishes use saffron. So why not add a little spice to your life . . . and to your meal.

Stigmas of the saffron crocus flower yield the sought-after spice. Picked by hand in the early morning hours, it takes 75,000 blooms with three stigmas each to produce a pound of saffron. A Mediterranean native, the saffron crocus is grown in Greece, Spain, Iran and Morocco.

When purchasing saffron, Marc Rosewood, chef and co-owner of Ashland's Pangea Grills and Wraps Restaurant says it's most important to buy quality saffron. "Absolutely, buy quality saffron threads. Powdered saffron is sometimes made with saffron leaves, saffron flour, or mixed with older, lesser quality spice," he says. Saffron has a unique, earthy flavor with a hint of smoke. When purchasing it, make sure the expensive spice has a mild fragrance but not a musty smell. If you've got some old saffron sitting in a cupboard, heat it in a dry pan until it's aromatic. Constance Jesser, owner of the Jacksonville Mercantile, says this process pulls the oils back out.

"We carry Iranian and Spanish saffron threads in sizes from one gram to 28.5 grams," says Jesser, "it will last five years." You don't have to spend a lot of money for a lot of flavor. Just a gram of the spice will flavor 32 servings. The chemical in the crocus, crocin, gives it a distinctive flavor, scent and color. "It's a lot of fun," she says, "to turn regular rice really yellow." Its deep golden yellow hue is so beautiful that it's the official color of Buddhist monks' robes.

Although you can add the threads directly to your dishes, Denise Marshall, owner of The Last Bite Cooking School in Eagle Point, likes to grind it with a mortar and pestle. If you're making a risotto, or another dish where you're adding water or stock, mix the crushed threads with the liquid first. "It will incorporate better, and it's so much easier," she says.

When using such a pungent spice, saffron should be the main flavor of the dish. "It's great at adding flavor to things like rice and beans," says Rosewood, "But don't use it when you're cooking with garlic or ginger since you don't want those flavors competing against each other." Instead, use it to enhance other contrasting flavors.

Perhaps the most stunning way to use saffron is in a sauce to highlight an entree. One of Jesser's favorites is saffron cream sauce. "It's wonderful with scallops," she says. When plating your entree, it's great with beef, fish and vegetables, too. Place the seafood on top of a puddle of sauce. For an over-the-top presentation, finish it with some grains of black salt.

Cooking with the world's most expensive spice can seem daunting, but saffron speaks for itself. With its bold flavor and bright color, let it transform your dishes into extraordinary ones. Marshall sums it up, "It's a fascinating spice. You have to have it."

Saffron - so expensive - so delicious