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Saffron filaments are the dried red stigmas and the white style of crocus flowers. For me this has always been a lovely twist of fate because crocus are my favorite flower. I remember that they were the first flower that I could call by name. Our front yard was covered with them. Little did I know their value.
Describing the flavor of saffron is difficult because the taste is so complex. It is at once aromatic, woody, and umami, with just a touch of sweetness. To me saffron tastes yellow - like a warm summer day in the woods.
I suppose that you could go out in the yard and pick the flowers, pulling the stigma out for drying but I prefer to pick up a few grams at the store. Besides, a gram of saffron about 500 threads. As each flower only yields 3 threads, going to the market is quite a bit easier.
Most of the available saffron is harvested in Spain but countries in the Middle East including Iran are popular producers. The latter saffron is not as intense to my palate and I generally try to find the Spanish import.
How much saffron? I generally use about 10 threads per serving, counting them out carefully. For some recipes I will make a saffron infusion – essentially saffron tea. I place the saffron in the bottom of a pyrex measuring cup and add about a quarter cup of boiling water. Letting the threads steep in this way results in a more powerful aromatic saffron flavor especially in quick sauté recipes.
For you saffron junkies out there John Humphries has written a lovely book called The Essential Saffron Companion. I must admit that I don’t purchase many specialty cookbooks like this, but his writing is so wonderful, and because most of the recipes are Mediterranean or Middle Eastern, they are both delicious and healthy.