|Arroz con Pollo|
Ah, the intrigue lurking in the spice cabinet. Most people would be surprised to learn that so many of the ordinary–and exotic–foods that are stored in their cabinets and pantry have an illustrious history, and where better to start our tale of intrigue and murder than amid the turmeric and paprika?
You may recall from your history lessons that economic trade began long ago along the Silk and Spice Roads that twisted across desserts and through mountainous terrain, from Northeast Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and into Europe. Long before coins, spices were the currency that the world operated on, and in the same vein as the modern day Mexican cartel, the spice traders were a ruthless, cut-throat lot.
Saffron is the most expensive and valuable spice in the world. Since its earliest origin, it has never fallen from its pedestal. Legend has it that Cleopatra would have her maids scatter saffron threads into her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable. Aside from the obvious importance that saffron played in Cleopatra’s bedroom scenarios, it’s an important ingredient in many culinary masterpieces, including Bouillabaise and Arroz con Pollo.
Today, 90% of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran,with the remaining 10% coming from Kashmir. Off course, the least available is always the most coveted and so, the Kashmiri saffron is the most expensive. Unfortunately for saffron shoppers, not only is saffron pricey, but you may not get what you pay for thanks to the flourishing business of saffron thieves who cut it with everything from shreds of beets and pomegranate, to red silk fibers. In some areas, adulterating saffron is a crime and in ancient times, this behavior was punished with a swift execution.
Consider, however, how painstaking the task of harvesting saffron, for it is the thin filaments, or stigmas, of the crocus–a flower that only blooms in spring. Each stigma must be plucked by hand and then dried. On average, it takes between 65,000 and 80,000 threads to comprise 1 pound of saffron.
Aside from the historical and fantastical allure, saffron remains popular because of its unique aroma, taste, and of course, its ability to impart a vibrant yellow hue to foods. To me, the taste is a mixture of hay and honey, and when tossed into hot olive oil with chopped onions, is perhaps one of the most intoxicating aromas–but don’t eat too much. In large quantities, saffron is toxic–it causes the imbiber to become overtaken by convulsive laughter followed by quick death.
And, while you contemplate that fate, let’s move on to an incredibly delicious–and quick–recipe for Arroz con Pollo, the ever popular Latin dish of saffron scented rice and braised chicken.
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 jarred, roasted red peppers, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely minced
1 garlic toe, peeled and finely minced
2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 can of anchovy stuffed olives, coarsely chopped
2 cups of white rice
3 cups of chicken broth, warmed
2 extra large pinches of saffron
3 bay leaves, preferably Turkish
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
salt and pepper
1. Pour a generous amount of olive oil into a heavy cast iron skillet and put it on a medium flame to heat.
2. Dredge the chicken thighs in flour, shaking off any excess.
3. When the oil is hot, add the chicken thighs to the pan, careful not to crowd them, and cook, turning once until brown. If needed, add additional oil and fry the chicken in batches.
4. As the chicken browns, remove it from the pan and set it aside.
5. Add the onions and garlic to the remaining hot oil, and fry until soft.
6. Add the saffron threads and toss with the onions and garlic until the mixture becomes very aromatic.
7. Add the butter and once it melts, stir in the uncooked rice and cook, stirring constantly, for 3-5 minutes.
8. Add the chicken broth, the tomatoes, red pepper, and chopped olives, a pinch of salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.
9. Once the mixture comes to a boil, turn down the heat and set the browned chicken thighs on top of the rice; tuck in the bay leaf and cover the pan.
10. Cook for 30-40 minutes over low heat until the rice is cooked. The rice on the bottom of the pan should form a crust–that’s the best part.
11. Serve the Arroz con Pollo with crusty bread and good wine.