By Amy Sherman
What You Need To Know:
- Saffron is so costly because 75,000 flowers are required to make just one pound.
- The nutrient-rich, aromatic spice has been used in cooking and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
- From asthma to heartburn, saffron has many benefits.
When a spice costs upwards of almost $130 per ounce, it makes even the most dedicated and authentic cook pause. But saffron’s hefty price tag lies in its production: Used since ancient times, it comes from the stigma at the end of the pistils of the crocus sativus flower. Since there are only three per flower, you need 75,000 flowers to make a pound of the spice! But that hasn’t stopped the prized spice from showing up in the cuisine of many countries including France, Greece, Italy, Iran, Spain and Sweden.
Saffron also has a long tradition of being used medicinally, including in Ayurvedic treatments, for conditions including acne, asthma, cough, insomnia, cancer, hardening of the arteries, intestinal gas, heartburn and even as an aphrodisiac. Recent medical research indicates that it also may help treat Alzheimer’s disease, depression, menstrual discomfort and premenstrual syndrome.
Along with trace amounts of vitamin C, as well as iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, saffron is rich in manganese, a nutrient that helps control blood sugar and protect against bone loss and free radical damage. Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. Research shows that three, in particular, may inhibit cell growth of human tumor cells in vitro: Picrocrocin, responsible for saffron’s strong taste; safranal, which gives saffron its aroma and may have antidepressant properties; and finally, crocin, a carotenoid, another powerful antioxidant.
Saffron can last for up to two years if you store it correctly; place it in an airtight container and keep it in a cool place. Saffron lends its beautiful hue and unique flavor to classic dishes like paella, risotto, bouillabaisse and biryani–but it also gives an unexpected boost to salad dressings. Just be sure to let the saffron “bloom” in hot liquid to let the full color and flavor shine, then try the Sweet Potato Salad with Pomegranate and Saffron Tahini Dressing (below) for a sophisticated, flavorful and nutrient-packed meal.
Sweet Potato Salad With Pomegranate & Saffron Tahini Dressing
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, about one pound, cut into 3/4 inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Pinch of saffron
- 1/4 cup hot water
- 1/4 cup tahini
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 4 cups fresh arugula, preferably organic
- 2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
- 1/2 cup roasted pistachios, chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the sweet potatoes in a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Roast until tender, about 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking. Let cool.
- Soak the saffron in 2 tablespoons of boiling water; allow the mixture to cool. Meanwhile, whisk together the tahini, lemon juice, saffron water, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt, until creamy.
- Place the arugula in a serving bowl and top with the sweet potatoes, pomegranate seeds and pistachios. Drizzle with the dressing and toss gently, before serving.