Cro­cus fo­cus

Saf­fron’s rich flavour is mag­i­cally ver­sa­tile, as de­li­ciously il­lus­trated by th­ese Mid­dle Eastern recipes, says Ta­mal Ray

The Guardian - G2 - - Food -

Brows­ing the spice sec­tion of your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket, with its row upon row of pris­tine glass jars, it can be hard to imag­ine a time when spices were so pre­cious that wars were fought for them. In this age of max­imised yields and cor­po­rate su­per­farms, there is per­haps one spice, above all oth­ers, that re­tains some of its an­cient mys­tique: saf­fron.

To­day, saf­fron re­mains by far the most ex­pen­sive spice in the world, trad­ing at thou­sands of dol­lars a kilo. The high price is a re­flec­tion of the painstak­ing and labour-in­ten­sive process of cul­ti­va­tion, which has changed lit­tle in cen­turies. The frag­ile thread­like stig­mas emerg­ing from the flow­ers of the saf­fron cro­cus, are care­fully plucked by hand and then dried to pro­duce the fa­mil­iar red­dish strands.

The flavour is hard to de­scribe. Be­neath the sweet hints that be­lie its flo­ral ori­gin is a rich­ness and depth that en­dows saf­fron with end­less ver­sa­til­ity in the kitchen. Though many associate it with su­gary foods such as cakes and tra­di­tional In­dian sweets, it’s also ubiq­ui­tous in Per­sian cui­sine, pro­vid­ing the base flavour for many stews.

It is from the Mid­dle East that I have taken in­spi­ra­tion for this month’s recipes, each show­cas­ing saf­fron’s ver­sa­til­ity in a dif­fer­ent way. It’s the dom­i­nant flavour of a quick and sim­ple chicken ke­bab, but also merges well as one of the many flavours in my stuffed baby aubergines.

Saf­fron chicken ke­babs with brown onions

(Makes four skew­ers)

This Per­sian-in­spired recipe is quick and easy and would go well as part of a mixed-meze meal. Wrapped up in a tor­tilla, how­ever, it makes one of my favourite lunchtime sand­wiches.

Pre­heat the oven to 180C/350F/ gas mark 4. Pre­pare the mari­nade by grind­ing the saf­fron to a fine pow­der and adding to the milk in a small bowl. Al­low to sit for a couple of min­utes then mix in with the other spices, yo­ghurt, crushed gar­lic and salt.

Chop up the thighs into large chunks of about 4cm x 4cm. Pour the mari­nade over the chicken, en­sur­ing the chicken is well coated. Then place the chicken in a cov­ered bowl in the fridge to mari­nade for 2 to 4 hours.

Mean­while, finely slice the onion and add to a roast­ing tray. Driz­zle with enough oil to coat the onions and roast in the oven for 10-15 min­utes un­til the onions are soft­ened and have started to brown and caramelise at the edges.

Thread the meat on to skew­ers and cook un­der a hot grill, turn­ing the chicken to en­sure it cooks evenly all the way through.

Re­warm the onions and serve with the chicken and a bread of your choice. Stuffed baby aubergines (Makes 4 baby stuffed aubergines, enough for din­ner for 2) This has that strange prop­erty of im­prov­ing with a day’s age­ing. Baby aubergines can be found in Asian food shops, while in­tensely tangy bar­ber­ries are read­ily avail­able in Mid­dle Eastern stores. You can sub­sti­tute with reg­u­lar aubergines by halv­ing them length­ways and re­mov­ing some of the in­ner flesh for the stuff­ing. You can also sub­sti­tute dried

cran­ber­ries or cur­rants for the bar­ber­ries, but halve the quan­tity of sugar when cook­ing.

Place the wal­nuts on a roast­ing tray and toast in the oven for 7 min­utes at 180C/350f/gas mark 4. Set aside to cool.

Mean­while, finely dice 2 of the baby aubergines and add to a fry­ing pan with a lit­tle oil. Fry on a medium heat for about 10 min­utes un­til soft­ened.

Grind the saf­fron to a pow­der with a pes­tle and mor­tar. Then add to a bowl with the bul­gar wheat, ¼ tea­spoon salt and 75ml boil­ing wa­ter. Cover and set aside for 10 min­utes un­til all the wa­ter has been ab­sorbed.

Add the zest and juice of the tan­ger­ines to­gether with the sugar in a small pan and re­duce down un­til the liq­uid has halved. Stir in the dried berries and cook un­til the liq­uid has fur­ther re­duced to be­come thick and syrupy.

Pre­pare the re­main­ing aubergines by slic­ing through from the base, stop­ping just short of the stem. Turn the aubergine and make a sec­ond cut, again from the base to just short of the stem. This will give a quar­tered aubergine, held to­gether at the stem. Rub over the outer and in­ner sur­faces with a lit­tle olive oil and salt.

Mix to­gether the stuff­ing by stir­ring to­gether the bul­gar wheat, tomato puree, berry-syrup mix, finely chopped herbs and chopped wal­nuts with 2 ta­ble­spoons of olive oil. Add fur­ther salt to taste if needed. Fi­nally, crum­ble in the Feta.

Di­vide the stuff­ing be­tween each of the 4 aubergines, then bake un­cov­ered for 15 min­utes at 180C. Cover with foil and bake for a fur­ther 20 min­utes un­til the aubergines are soft­ened.

Saf­fron still re­tains its an­cient mys­tique, the flower’s thread­like stig­mas plucked by hand

Pinch your­self … Ta­mal Ray’s saf­fron chicken ke­babs

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