As promised, last night I cooked with saffron and my guinea pigs gave it a hearty YES!!! Poor people, they walked in the door after a long day, all hungry and hopeful for some filling comfort food and noticed the gleam in my eyes. They sensed they had unexpectedly entered a research lab; that they were definitely part of the research team. Hunger can lead to desperation, don’t you think? I made it a little easier for them by having the dining room table nicely set, a fire in the hearth and the promise that, if nothing else, the wine will be good. On with the science experiment…
Saffron comes in two forms: threads or powdered. Powdered has other ingredients in it and is ready to use; threads are pure saffron and must be either ground or soaked in water for 10 minutes to prepare them for use. It was fun to get a tiny bowl, boil water, shake a few threads into the bowl, add a teaspoon of boiling water and watch them soak. It was easy enough to do and as they soak the scent starts wafting through the kitchen. It’s such an exotic scent, complex and unfamiliar, as if I were in a kitchen from a far away land. I wanted to showcase saffron by using in a way that blends its flavors rather than overwhelms them. An aioli seemed like a good route to go. For all intent and purposes aioli is very similar to mayonnaise except that it is thinner and has a garlic taste. It is meant to be drizzled over vegetables or seafood, particularly mild fish and shrimp. I decided to go for a recipe that had been tested by top chefs. The trick is to not allow the garlic to overwhelm the other flavors in the sauce. Apparently there is sometimes green growth in the center of a garlic bulb that has a very strong flavor. That has to be removed. You do that by discarding it and then grating the remaining garlic using the raspy part of the grater or a garlic press until the garlic is very fine. For this recipe you should use a blender. I adore the small red Kitchenaid blender/chopper we have. It has a powerful motor to get the job done, doesn’t take up much space on the counter, and allows for quick cleanup.
Before you read any further, note that the aioli needs to sit for at least two hours before you serve it so that the saffron flavor has time to “bloom”. The garlic will bloom too, so be aware that one small garlic clove will “bloom” to a much bolder taste and be conservative in using it.
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1 teaspoon boiling water
2 egg yolks
1 small clove garlic, green removed and grated fine
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon white pepper-black if you don’t have white
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup virgin olive oil
In a small bowl, soak the saffron threads for 10 minutes. Grate the garlic into the bowl of the food blender and add the two egg yolks, salt, pepper, sugar and the saffron with the soaking water. Pulse in the blender till smooth, then add the olive oil slowly. This will take about 30 seconds. Scrape the aioli from the blender into a pretty bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the saffron flavors to “bloom”. It’s that simple. This makes more than enough for a meal, since you’re drizzling it over what ever you have chosen. Tightly covered, this can be stored successfully in the refrigerator for up to two weeks ( according to most sources I read). Some ideas for using it: drizzled over shrimp, mild fish, crab cakes or broiled chicken. It works well with several vegetable including broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and potatoes.
What I did, mainly because I was a deer in headlights about the whole thing, was to try a new kind of fish I’d never tasted called Sea Dory. Must be some history here, because it’s also called John Dory. It’s a deep sea fish, kind of odd looking and pretty, with an almost sweet, mild and flaky flesh. I dredged it in gluten free flour with some salt and pepper, then pan sauteed it in a little olive oil and butter mixture. It turned a beautiful golden color and was a great way to showcase the aioli sauce. We also drizzled it over a bed of baby spinach with steamed broccoli. It made a colorful pretty plate.
Results? All guinea pigs gave honest opinions and thought it was delicious. My daughter Elle particularly liked the unique saffron flavor. Would I recommend this? Yes, with a caveat; The saffron had to share the spotlight with strong garlic and egg flavors. You have to like garlic and not mind that raw egg taste to enjoy any kind of aioli. Did the saffron come through? Loud and clear. If you enjoy the aioli, keep in mind there are other herbs that work beautifully in it as well. I’m certainly going to use all of the aioli by trying it over different things like grilled shrimp over rice. Also, before I try that paella I wrote about I think I’ll try Risotto Milanese because I’m still searching for the pure flavor of saffron. I’m still trying to figure it out.