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Demystifying Saffron: Mark Bittman Explains The Pricey Spice

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In the latest installment of NPR's Cook Your Cupboard, New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman sheds a little light on saffron — a spice that has been stumping Lennet Radke in Wisconsin. Radke, who received a little jar in a contest, says she's never really used it. The stuff isn't cheap. And that knowledge alone can stifle experimentation.

Bittman concedes that it's exotic and expensive. But also, he says, "it should be used."

So what is it? The stringy red spice is actually the dried stigma of a saffron flower. It has a distinct flavor — and turns dishes a distinctly rich, yellow color. (For that reason, it's also used as a dye.)

Saffron is most famously used in Bouillabaisse (a French fish stew), but Bittman says there are some really basic things you can do with it. "The simplest thing to do with saffron is just make rice," he says.

He's not really one for recipes, but instead offers a few basic methods:

  • Sautee some onions, add some rice, and cook the rice in the oil or butter until glossy. Then add a pinch of saffron and the rice will turn a beautiful golden color. (Do this to make any kind of risotto, pilaf, paella or couscous.)
  • Take a lot of olive oil and add slivered garlic, smoked paprika and some saffron. Cook shrimp in the spicy oil. Dip bread in the excess oil.
  • Steam mussels with a little bit of white wine, garlic herbs and a pinch of saffron.

Bittman also offers a few tips about cardamom. It's on the sweeter side of the spice spectrum and, he says, "turns something quite ordinary into something special."

  • Throw the pods into something like rice or stew.
  • Add a small amount of powdered cardamom to coffee.
  • Add a pinch of it to a tomato sauce or a rice pudding.
  • Sprinkle a bit on fresh toast — or regular toast.
  • Try adding a bit to oatmeal with some nuts and orange zest.
  • Sautee some chopped fruit (apples, pears or both — maybe even bananas) gently in butter until they brown a little bit and sprinkle with cardamom.

We've got a new round of Cook Your Cupboard going: Freezer Finds. Don't toss those forgotten frozen peas! Keep your cool and get summer dish ideas by asking the community!

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