What is saffron and what does it taste like?
Saffron is a spice that that is derived from a plant called Crocus sativus and It’s been around for over 4,000 years. Saffron has a distinctive bright red color and a subtle flavor of honey, with a slightly sweet, spicy and bitter taste. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Each Saffron crocus plant has up to four flowers, each bearing only three bright orange red threads on it. So approximately 100,000 saffron flowers are required to collect 1 kg of saffron, which is also done manually and that justifies the price of it.
Different forms of saffron
Most of the saffron in the world in grown in the belt between Spain and India. Iran is the world’s largest producer of saffron followed by Morocco, Spain and India. There is a significant amount of fake saffron being sold annually. Fake saffron could be anything that looks like real saffron and is treated with colouring and flavorings, for example corn husk! Real saffron has a distinct aroma and that’s how you can differentiate it, as it is hard to reproduce. Saffron sometimes comes powdered, however unless you are using it for color only, try to stick to using threads instead.
How to use saffron threads
As with the majority of spices, saffron tastes better and reveals a stronger flavor when heated. Soak saffron threads in hot liquid (water, stock or milk) for at least 10 minutes and then use this liquid for cooking. Alternatively, saffron can be slightly toasted on a dry frying pan and then ground with a pestle and mortar into a powder.
Recipes using saffron
There are plenty of dishes using saffron across the world and the variety is incredible. From poached pears to spicy paella they all have an amazing aroma and taste. Many modern cuisines use saffron nowadays, and we would like to share some Moroccan saffron dishes.
Saffron couscous with onion
Couscous is a popular Moroccan dish and there are hundreds of recipes and ways to cook it. The couscous recipe we provide below is a beautiful aromatic side dish and works especially well with chicken tagines.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/8 tsp saffron
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 300g couscous
- Heat up olive oil and butter in a saucepan
- Add saffron and warm it up for a minute on medium heat
- Add onion and 1 tsp of salt. Sauté for 7-8 minutes
- Add chicken stock and let it boil
- Add couscous, take away from the heat, cover with lid and leave for 5-6 minutes
- Garnish with some fresh chopped parsley.
Chicken tagine with preserved lemons, olives and saffron
This classic chicken tagine recipe goes well with saffron couscous, alternatively you can try to serve it with saffron rice described below. If the recipe looks too complicated for you, feel free to replace it with Mina chicken tagine sauce which uses the same ingredients and therefore speeds up the cooking process.
- 1 whole chicken
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onions
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ tsp saffron
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 3 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro
- 2 preserved lemons
- ½ cup olives
- Salt, pepper to taste
- Lightly toast saffron in a pan with no oil and put aside
- Mix garlic with salt
- Cut chicken into pieces.
- Add chicken parts to a heavy bottomed saucepan and top up with onion, ginger, garlic, , turmeric, lemon juice, some additional salt, black pepper, saffron and cilantro.
- Cut lemons into chunky pieces.
- Pour 1 cup of water into the saucepan, cover with lid and sauté on small heat for 30 minutes.
- When the chicken is almost ready – add olives, and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Add a splash of water if needed during cooking.
This dish is popular among many Middle Eastern countries and it has spread to Morocco too. To be fair, saffron rice is a great complement for meat based and vegetarian tagines. Couscous is the most popular side dish to be served with tagine, however, why not try something slightly different!
Ingredients (5 servings)
- 3 ½ cups of chicken stock (replace with vegetable stock for vegetarian option)
- ½ tsp saffron threads, ground with pestle and mortar
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 ½ cups long-grain rice (basmati or jasmine work the best)
- Salt to taste
- ½ cup sliced almonds
- 2/3 cup raisins
- Add oil and some salt to the stock and bring it to boil
- Add ground saffron and rice and let the stock boil again, stir, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20 minutes or until rice is tender.
- Remove from heat, put aside and let it rest for a couple of minutes keeping the lid on.
- Meanwhile soak raisins (if using) in hot water and slightly toast almonds on dry pan, till they are golden.
- Gently fluff up rice with a fork and mix in drained raisins and almonds.
- Serve on its own or as a side dish.
Moroccan pastilla or bastilla is a rustic looking pie traditionally made with squabs (domesticated pigeons), not to be confused with pastila, Russian fruit-based confectionery or pastillas, which are milk based confectionery from Philippines. The following recipe has been slightly modernised and uses chicken instead of squabs.
- 4 chicken thighs, boneless
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2cm grated ginger
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 200ml chicken stock
- 3 eggs, slightly beaten
- 100g toasted almond flakes
- 25g melted butter
- 10 sheets of ready made filo pastry
- Sea salt, sugar, black pepper for seasoning
- Preheat oven to 400F
- Rub the chicken with oil, salt and pepper, put it in a deep roast tray and roast for 35 minutes until golden.
- Take it out, leave to cool and separate the meat from the bones and shred it to small pieces.
- Sauté the onion and ginger for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft.
- Add cinnamon, a pinch of sugar, chicken stock, pulled chicken meat to the onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper, cover with lid, let it boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
- Take of the heat and add beaten eggs and almond flakes to the mixture, leave to cool.
- Start layering filo pastry sheets brushing each of them with butter. Every 4 sheets add a layer of filling. Tuck the edges of the last layer and brush it all over with butter too.
- Roast it in the oven for 10-15 minutes until golden.
- Take out of the oven, flip carefully to the flat tray and return back to the oven.
- Cook for another 5-10 minutes till golden.
- Sprinkle with sugar powder and cinnamon before serving.