Saffron is ubiquitous in Persian cuisine and infuses a wide array of dishes with soul. If treated properly, a small pinch of saffron can brighten and perfume savory and sweet dishes and drinks.
Ancient Persians treasured saffron for its healing and decorative virtues and, later, its culinary ones. Ever since, saffron has left its gastronomic mark across the globe.
Harvesting saffron is laborious, hence its high cost. Saffron comes from the crocus sativus plant, which produces two flowers, each one with three stigmas. The delicate flowers are harvested by hand in the fall and must be picked in a matter of hours each morning before they wilt. The stigmas are then hand-plucked and dried. It takes about 200 flowers to produce 1 gram of saffron.
Thankfully, only a little saffron is needed to flavor a dish. In Iranian cooking, whole threads are rarely used. Instead, to stretch saffron, cooks grind the threads with a small pinch of sugar or salt to yield a fine powder. This is commonly done in a mortar and pestle.
The ground saffron is then steeped in a process similar to brewing tea. After water comes to a boil, it is left to stand for two minutes so its temperature drops slightly. A few spoonfuls are added to the ground saffron to draw out its flavor, color and perfume. Pouring water at a rolling boil over saffron has the opposite effect, scalding the fragile spice.
The saffron water can then be used right away in recipes like salmon kebabs or grilled chicken. Avoid buying inexpensive bottled saffron water, as it is most likely adulterated with food coloring or turmeric. There is no ingredient that can be substituted for saffron to replicate its rich, floral and earthy flavor, intoxicating aroma and warm sunset hue.
When you pour your saffron water into your dish, make sure there isn’t a speck of the liquid gold clinging to the bowl’s sides. If there is, drizzle in more water, swish it around and add it to the dish.
In this recipe, buttery, saffron-stained kebabs come together in no time and make for a flavorful meal. The warming spice mix balances and lifts the sweet notes from the saffron and salmon. You can entertain with these skewers or enjoy them on a weeknight, along with dill rice and a side of fresh herbs, or cucumber, tomato and onion salad.
Saffron Salmon Kebabs
• About 1 1/2 teaspoons saffron threads
• Pinch of sugar
• 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus lime wedges for serving
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 large garlic cloves, finely grated
• 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed between your fingers
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
• 1 1/2 pounds skinless salmon (preferably center-cut), cut into 1-inch pieces
• Fresh herbs, such as mint, cilantro and basil, for serving
Using a mortar and pestle or small bowl and the handle end of a wooden spoon, grind the saffron with a pinch of sugar to a fine powder (about 1/4 teaspoon). Transfer to a large bowl. Bring 2 tablespoons water to a boil in a saucepan, kettle or using the microwave, then let stand for 2 minutes to allow the water temperature to drop slightly. Add to the ground saffron powder, gently stir, cover and steep for 5 minutes.
To the saffron water, add the lime juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, oregano, coriander, pepper and turmeric. Stir to mix, add the salmon pieces and combine until the salmon is well coated. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
As the salmon marinates, prepare a charcoal grill until the coals are ashed over and slightly cooled to medium-hot or heat a gas grill to medium-high. Skewer the salmon and save any remaining marinade. Grill the skewers, brushing with the remaining marinade and turning every couple of minutes, until tender and buttery, about 10 minutes total. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing over the fish. Enjoy, with bites of fresh herbs between bites of salmon.
Total time: 1 hour, serves 4.