Saffron: You Can Have Too Much Of A Good Thing Food writer Monica Bhide, who was born in India and now lives in Washington, D.C., came into the NPR studios to demonstrate two recipes with saffron — a carrot-leek soup and an Indian dessert. "Great chefs say if you can taste the saffron in a dish, you've gone too far. You've messed up," she says.

Saffron: You Can Have Too Much Of A Good Thing

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, host:

I'm Guy Raz.

And now, to the kitchen. For two years, I've had a small pillbox of saffron in my pantry at home. I can't remember why I bought it, but it has sat in the cupboard, untouched since then because I didn't know what to do with it. That is, until I met food writer Monica Bhide. Monica was born in India. She now lives outside Washington, D.C., where she writes a syndicated column called "Seasonings."

And the other week, she wrote about saffron, so I asked her to come by to chat and to cook.

Ms. MONICA BHIDE (Food Writer): Saffron is one of those spices where you can have too much of a good thing.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BHIDE: You know, great chefs always say if you can taste the saffron in a dish, you've gone too far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You've messed up.

Ms. BHIDE: You've completely messed up. It's all about the aroma. Now I just opened up this little box. The saffron frees the smell. It's all about the aroma. When I was growing up, when saffron was added in a dish, it always signified you were special.

RAZ: Right.

Ms. BHIDE: They were going out of their way to add this very special, very expensive ingredient. And so it's done with a little pinch, just a little pinch on top, just a little pinch in the dish - enough for people to say: What's that?

RAZ: Monica brought two recipes with her - a carrot-leek soup and sweet yogurt with saffron, which is an Indian dessert. We began with the soup.

(Soundbite of chopping)

Ms. BHIDE: So all you need to do is just chop up your carrots, chop up your leeks. Everything goes in the pan. This is one of those wonderful soups that, you know, when you come back from office, put everything on the stove to boil. By the time you're done with your first glass of wine, your soup is going to be ready.

(Soundbite of sizzle)

Ms. BHIDE: What we're going to do now is just let the carrots cook down a little.

RAZ: Right.

Ms. BHIDE: And then we're going to season this. So we're going to season this with a little bit of turmeric, a little bit of coriander, salt. And if you like, a touch of heat. Maybe a little paprika, not very strong. Or a little cayenne, if you like it a little strong.

RAZ: Right.

Ms. BHIDE: You know, when heat is added, the spices, that's when they actually release their flavors.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. BHIDE: So now you should start to smell - the kitchen smells just amazing.

RAZ: Mmm. And, you know what, I should tell you, Monica, I always get stressed out when I hear cooking segments on the radio because I'm like, wait a minute. I missed that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Everything is going to be at our website, npr.org. So the entire recipe will be there. This smells incredible. Can we just eat it now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: So, Monica, here's the million-dollar question: Why is saffron so expensive? I mean, it's like thousands of dollars for a pound of it, right?

Ms. BHIDE: It is very expensive. So here's the reason. The saffron -saffron comes from a particular flower, a purple flower called the crocus. And it takes 75,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of saffron.

RAZ: Wow.

Ms. BHIDE: So just to give you a visual, that's like a football field of flowers.

RAZ: And does it grow all around the world?

Ms. BHIDE: The crocus flower originated in Greece, but, you know, it grows in the Kashmir Valley in India. It grows in Iran. It grows in Turkey. And now, there are some new countries like New Zealand, I believe, they're starting to grow and sell saffron.

RAZ: And by the way, since most of us are not going to Kashmir or Iran anytime soon, saffron is available at most supermarkets, and, of course, you can get it through online retailers.

Ms. BHIDE: So now, we're just going to add the broth. You can use any good quality broth. You can use homemade vegetable broth, chicken broth, any broth that you like to flavor this. Then we're going to add the saffron. Saffron releases itself the best in warm liquids.

(Soundbite of sizzle)

RAZ: So how much saffron - I mean, what's the rule of thumb with saffron?

Ms. BHIDE: So the rule of thumb with saffron when you're adding it to the dish is generally about three strands a person. So, and this is probably about a little more than half a teaspoon, a little pinch, not much. So, OK? Kind of little pinch.

RAZ: Got it.

Ms. BHIDE: (Unintelligible) that much.

RAZ: OK. So while the soup simmered, we turned to dessert.

Ms. BHIDE: So this is a very typical Indian dessert that comes from the western part of India.

RAZ: Monica thickened some plain yogurt overnight. She just dumped it into cheesecloth and set that over a strainer.

Ms. BHIDE: This is full-fat yogurt. If you're going to be using non-fat or fat-free yogurt, my suggestion would be to add a little bit of regato cheese. That will give it some - a little bit of richness...

RAZ: Right.

Ms. BHIDE: ...which is always wonderful. And now, you need to sweeten this. You can either do sugar, which we have, or you can do honey, which we have. If you're doing honey, just pick a honey that's - because we're doing saffron, pick a honey that's not very strongly flavored, just a light flavored.

RAZ: Clover honey.

Ms. BHIDE: Clover honey.

RAZ: Right. Now, earlier in the morning, Monica took a pinch of saffron and threw it into a few tablespoons of warm cream, and then she let it soak. The saffron puffed up and the cream took on a glorious reddish hue. The cream was then poured into the yogurt.

(Soundbite of stirring)

RAZ: And that yogurt is just taking on that saffron color now that...

Ms. BHIDE: See the color.

RAZ: ...you've poured that liquid in there.

Ms. BHIDE: So now, here's the point where, you know, if you're ready to serve it, you can just put in a beautiful bowl, and it's ready to go. But if you want to go that little extra step to make it look really pretty, I would put it through one of those pastry bags with a really nice nozzle at the end.

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Ms. BHIDE: And then just squeeze it out until (unintelligible). It'll just - it looks beautiful.

RAZ: All right. So we've got the dessert, Monica. I've got to try it.

Ms. BHIDE: OK. Please do.

RAZ: I'm going to try it before the soup is ready.

(Soundbite of tapping)

RAZ: And the taste is just close to perfect. It's clean and earthy with a slight tang from the yogurt and a subtle sweetness from the honey. So with the dessert done, we checked back on the soup.

Ms. BHIDE: Here comes the smell.

RAZ: So the soup is almost ready to go.

Ms. BHIDE: It's almost ready to go.

RAZ: We're getting close. Hmm.

Ms. BHIDE: Let it boil a little.

RAZ: That smells so good. Now, one thing I noticed about Monica while we were cooking is she never tasted anything the entire time. No sticking spoons in the pot.

Ms. BHIDE: You know, I grew up in a Hindu household where, first of all, the kitchen is considered sacred. So everything that you're cooking in it is sacred. And the first portion of the food is always for the gods. So if you actually taste while you're cooking, you're making the food impure.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. BHIDE: So I remember when my grandmother would cook, she - you know, we're cooking by sound, by sight, by smell. And when everything would be done, the first plate of food would be given out to the animals in the back. You know, usually, there'd be a dog or a cow or something in the back...

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. BHIDE: ...because they say animals carry the spirit of god because they're so pure.

RAZ: No animals here, though, so I'll be the first taster. But first, it goes into the blender.

(Soundbite of blender)

RAZ: We add a touch of that saffron-infused cream we used in the dessert. We place a few strands of saffron on top. And it's ready.

Ms. BHIDE: It's decadent without being bad for you. How about that?

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. BHIDE: I mean, it got all the vegetables.

RAZ: It's perfect.

Ms. BHIDE: And we just barely added a touch of cream. So now, we'll let you taste it and see what you think.

RAZ: All right. It's so good.

Ms. BHIDE: Yeah.

RAZ: It's great. And you know what, it has that - it's that - I can't describe it, Monica. I cannot describe it. That's the thing with saffron.

Ms. BHIDE: That's the thing about saffron.

RAZ: You can't describe it.

Ms. BHIDE: I think that means I passed the test.

RAZ: I think so, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: But it has that kind of earthiness, that kind of full body sort of thing going on.

Ms. BHIDE: Yeah.

RAZ: This yogurt, you've got your dinner.

Ms. BHIDE: You've got your dinner.

RAZ: Yeah. That's food writer Monica Bhide. She's the author most recently of "Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Modern Kitchen." You can find the full recipe for her carrot-saffron soup and the yogurt with saffron dessert at our website, npr.org.

Monica, thank you so much.

Ms. BHIDE: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: And by the way, Melissa, apparently a lot of people are convinced of saffron's medicinal qualities. It's considered to be an antidepressant in Iran.

BLOCK: And, Guy, I'm intrigued with the notion of saffron dessert (unintelligible).

RAZ: You know, it is, actually. You know, I actually made that saffron-infused cream a few days ago and then I mixed it with an egg and dipped a thick slice of bread into that mixture, and it made an amazing French toast.

BLOCK: But did you bring any in for the rest of us? No.

RAZ: I will, I promise you.

BLOCK: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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