Monday, January 14, 2008

Wouldn't It Be Rice?

What comes to mind when you think of luxurious food? Seared fois gras? A creamy, rich pasta? A seven course meal at Per Se? I got to thinking about this last week when I ran out of work to look at an apartment (moving is stressful!) and got home completely exhausted and craving something luxe, warm, and filling. All of my steaks were, sadly, dying a slow death in the freezer and there was nothing fresh in my fridge. But none of that really mattered, since for me the ultimate in decadence is anything with the fragrant and luxurious flavor of saffron. It could have something to do with its prevalence in Spanish cuisine, or perhaps that it's the world's most expensive spice, but to me, nothing makes a meal more lavish than saffron does.

Saffron's history is storied and legendary, as it was, of course, one of the many spices that Columbus sought when he ended up accidentally sailing to the New World. Saffron actually comes from a flower, specifically the saffron crocus. It's the flower's stigma, so it's quite small and lightweight--it takes approximately 13,000 of the dried threads to accumulate just one ounce of saffron, hence its hefty price tag. Although it's an expensive item to keep in your pantry, I do think it's worth having, especially since a little goes a long way towards bestowing a dish earthy flavor and a vibrant, canary yellow color. With just a few threads, (less than half a teaspoon, even) you could flavor a paella or risotto dish for eight people, and avoid adding artificial colorants.

So with all of this in mind, I came home and set forth to create something rich and delicious with my saffron. Fortunately, I had a whole container of arborio rice in my pantry that I could use to make one of my favorite dishes: saffron risotto. As I've written before, risotto is made with short grain rice (arborio) and contrary to popular belief, doesn't take much time or effort at all. A plain risotto like this one, with no other ingredients, takes less than 30 minutes to cook, so it's perfect as a last minute after work meal. And as far as effort is concerned, all you have to do is stir every 3 minutes or so to release the rice's natural starch, giving the dish it's signature texture, without adding any cream. Despite the ease of this dish, the result is always a creamy and sumptuous plate that's perfect for lifting your spirits after a long, cold day. Let the diminutive, powerful strands of saffron do half of the work for you the next time you want something opulent with minimal effort. Here's how:

Saffron Risotto (for two)

1 cup arborio rice
4 1/2 cups chicken or non-tomato based vegetable stock
3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp saffron (about 15 strands)
3 Tbsp warm water
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
pepper (white is best)

1. Heat 2 Tbsp butter and all of the olive oil in a medium pan. Add rice and cook until opaque and just starting to yellow. Meanwhile, combine saffron and water in a small bowl (this is called "blooming" the saffron) and set aside.

2. Add a ladle-full of stock, along with the saffron mixture to the pan and stir until almost all of the liquid is absorbed. Repeat until rice is cooked through.
Season with salt and pepper.

3. When the rice is cooked through and creamy, stir in the remaining tablespoon butter and the Parmesan. Enjoy!


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