The envelope came postmarked Tehran and stuffed with crimson confetti: pure saffron. It came with instructions: crush, seal, steep. It came with thanks. Charlie had saved the sender’s life.
Charlie shared the saffron. He shared the instructions. In a pinch, he’d share the life-saving. He’s generous like that.
Once I read the note, I knew I was guilty. Previously, I’d rolled the red threads between thumb and finger, I’d tossed the crumbles into stew or sauce, I’d appreciated — but not marveled at — saffron’s sweet-hay scent, its golden glow and bitter bite.
The potent spice — stigmas of the saffron crocus, each hand-plucked and sun-dried — deserves the cook’s full focus. Now I, too, have Charlie to thank.
Makes 2 servings
1 bulb fennel with fronds
1 clove garlic, degermed
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, sliced into crescents
3 cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons steeped saffron, see method
12 ounces waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, cut into 1-inch chunks
1½ to 2 cups chicken broth
⅓ cup dry white wine
20 small clams, scrubbed
½ cup heavy cream
1. Chop: Snip the frilly fronds from the fennel. Chop fronds with the garlic, lemon zest and ½ teaspoon salt. Cover this fennel gremolata; set aside. Slice the fennel bulb into crescents.
2. Wilt: In a medium skillet, heat oil over medium. Slide in fennel crescents, onions, chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and the red pepper. Cook, stirring, until vegetables wilt, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and steeped saffron. Stir in potatoes.
3. Boil: Pour in enough broth to barely cover potatoes, about 1½ cups. Bring broth to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover pan and cook until potatoes are easy to pierce with a skewer, about 10 minutes.
4. Steam: Pour in wine. Nestle in clams. Cover pan and steam until clams open, 5-7 minutes. Discard any unopened clams.
5. Rest: Stir in cream. Cover pan and let rest over low heat, 2 minutes. Scoop into bowls. Dust with gremolata. Enjoy.
Steeped saffron: Slide saffron threads (at least a tablespoon — better yet, more) into a mortar (or clean spice grinder). Crush to a fine powder. Seal this precious powder in a jar, and store in a cool, dark cupboard. To steep: Measure ¼ teaspoon saffron powder into a small jar. Pour in 3 tablespoons boiling water. Let steep 30 minutes. Store any unused elixir, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator. It’s the key to brilliant saffron cuisine.
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
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