Is saffron worth the expense? Oh, is it ever

I went to my local saffrontarium — which is where they sell saffron, of course — and bought a hit of saffron that cost $500 an ounce.

I did not purchase an entire ounce. No one purchases an entire ounce. The bottle I picked up contained a mere 0.03 ounces of the stuff. It cost me a cool $14.99.

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The good news is that saffron is a very potent spice, and it takes just a small amount to impart its heady, perfumed flavor to any dish. That $14.99 jar is good for several meals.

Saffron costs so much because it is so hard to obtain. It comes from the stigma of a certain type of crocus, which only has three threads per flower. No one has figured out a mechanical way to pick the saffron, so it must be harvested by hand — but only in the morning, because the afternoon sun will cause the delicate threads to burn.

On top of that, it takes 4,000 flowers to yield a single ounce of saffron. No wonder it’s half as expensive as gold.

But is it worth it? Oh, is it ever.

I used the delicately intense spice to make three dishes. One of them a dessert, which is not necessarily what one thinks of when one thinks of saffron. What can I say? I like dessert.

But we’ll save the dessert for last, which is as it should be. First course first, in this case Penne with Saffron.

I had thought of making a classic saffron risotto, but then I saw this recipe, and I knew I had to try it. Penne with Saffron is cooked the same way as a risotto, only with pasta instead of rice. I had never heard of cooking pasta this way before, but it turned out even better than I had hoped — and I was hoping for something great.

As with risotto, you begin with onions cooked in olive oil and butter until tender. Then you add the penne and one ladle of simmering stock. Stir until the stock is almost all absorbed, and repeat the process until the penne is completely cooked through.

The saffron — just a pinch — is only added to the last ladle. But it is enough to imbue the entire pot with its rich flavor. One taste, and you’ll want to thank those hard-working saffron harvesters.

My next dish was a main course, Chicken with Saffron Rice. The recipe came from Jacques Pépin, which may explain — along with the saffron — why it is so exceptionally satisfying.

At the heart of the dish is arborio rice that is cooked in chicken stock and flavored with saffron. In other words, it’s the saffron risotto I wanted to make all along, only without the constant ladling and stirring.

One other ingredient makes it stand out, a mixture called alcaparrado. This is a Spanish favorite made up of equal amounts of green olives, pimentos and capers. You can apparently buy it in a jar at some international markets, but I just went ahead and mixed together equal parts of green olives, pimentos and capers.

That was easy. But it was also an astonishing addition to saffron sort-of-risotto and chicken.

For the chicken, incidentally, I used dark meat. It remains moist throughout the cooking, and also the timing of the rice (it’s all cooked together in the same large skillet) is perfect when you use it. If you absolutely must use white meat, don’t add it back to the pan until there are 20 minutes left to cook.

At last, I could turn my attention to dessert. Saffron takes the main stage in my other dessert, Saffron Panna Cotta.

Panna cotta is an ethereally soft, molded cream dish; it holds together better than pudding but is not nearly as rigid as, say, Jell-O. Though it is easy to make, it could not be more elegant.

The basic panna cotta recipe is cream, sugar and just enough powdered gelatin to keep it together. These ingredients are usually flavored with something aromatic and delicious, and it is hard to get more aromatic and delicious than saffron.

The saffron taste in this dessert is gentle but persistent. The sweetness of the panna cotta brings out unsuspected depths in the spice. If you want to impress someone, serve a Saffron Panna Cotta.

Heck, if you want to impress someone, serve a saffron anything.

Penne with Saffron

Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.” Serves 4.

6 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock

3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for serving

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

12 ounces uncooked penne

Pinch saffron

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring stock to a boil. Heat butter and oil in a separate pot, add onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, until softened. Add penne and stir until it is shiny and coated with fat. Add a ladleful of hot stock and stir until it has been absorbed.

Continue adding stock, a ladleful at a time, as if making risotto, until pasta is completely cooked. You may not need to use all of the stock. Stir saffron into the last ladleful of stock before adding it to the pot. Mix well until the dish is an even yellow color and smells of saffron.

Remove pot from heat, sprinkle with Parmesan, mix well and stir in a pat of butter. Transfer to a warm serving dish and serve.

Chicken with Saffron Rice

Adapted from “Essential Pepin,” by Jacques Pepin. Serves 4.

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 chicken thighs, skin removed

4 chicken drumsticks, skin removed

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups arborio or other short-grain rice

3 bay leaves

1 cup peeled, diced tomatoes

1/2 cup coarsely chopped green olives

1/2 cup pimentos

1/2 cup capers, drained (a 3.5-ounce jar will do)

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped jalapeño pepper, or more or less depending on your tolerance for heat

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon saffron threads

2 1/2 cups water

Tabasco sauce, optional

Heat oil in a large skillet until hot. Add chicken pieces in one layer and saute over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, for 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Transfer chicken to a plate and set aside.

Add onions and garlic to the drippings in the skillet and cook for 2 minutes. Add rice and mix well. Stir in te bay leaves, tomatoes, olives, pimentos, capers, jalapeño, salt and saffron, add the water, and mix well.

Return the browned chicken pieces to skillet, pushing them down into the liquid and rice until they are embedded in the mixture. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 30 minutes without stirring. Test to see if the rice is done; if not, cover and simmer longer until it is soft and creamy.

To serve, place a chicken thigh and drumstick, with some of the rice mixture, on each of four dinner plates. Sprinkle with Tabasco sauce, if desired, and serve.

Saffron Panna Cotta

Adapted from a recipe by Mario Batali, via “The Silver Spoon.” Serves 8 to 12.

3 1/3 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup superfine sugar, see note

Grated zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange

3/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1 tablespoon powdered gelatin, see note

1 cup milk

Fresh fruit, to serve

Notes: To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and blend on high for 10 to 15 seconds, until powdery. One tablespoon of gelatin, which is a little more than 1 packet, makes a very soft panna cotta. If you want it firmer, so that it does not expand when unmolded, use 4 teaspoons.

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Combine cream, sugar, grated zest and saffron threads in a pan and bring to a boil, stirring gently. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes to develop flavor and color. Sprinkle the powdered gelatin into the still-hot cream mixture (do not dump the gelatin, which will cause it to clump) and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer into a large pitcher and stir in milk. Pour mixture into chilled dessert cups or wine glasses and chill in refrigerator until set, 4 to 6 hours.

If you like, you can unmold the panna cotta to serve. Run the tip of a knife around the edge of the cup, dip the cup quickly into hot water and gently shake the dessert onto a plate. Serve with fresh fruit.

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