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.
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 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.
How to make steeped saffron: Slide saffron threads (at least a tablespoon) 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.
Measure 1/4 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 time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
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
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons steeped saffron (see note at right)
12 ounces waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup dry white wine
20 small clams, scrubbed
1/2 cup heavy cream
Snip the frilly fronds from the fennel. Chop fronds with the garlic, lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover this fennel gremolata; set aside. Slice the fennel bulb into crescents.
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.
Pour in enough broth to barely cover potatoes, about 1 1/2 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.
Pour in wine. Nestle in clams. Cover pan and steam until clams open, 5-7 minutes. Discard any unopened clams.
Stir in cream. Cover pan and let rest over low heat, 2 minutes. Scoop into bowls. Dust with gremolata. Enjoy.