A Handful of Saffron


I love to play word association with food. We have so many images in our subconscious that actually have very little to do with the food itself, but rather with a place we ate it, an emotion we experienced at the time, the feel and scent of the air during an unforgettable meal, or a person we shared the taste with. Basil, for me, brings up fragments of memory that include an intensely hot summer day, my bare feet on the kitchen floor, stained fingernails and a spicy cinnamon-like fragrance filling my nostrils as I tore up handfuls of green one long-ago afternoon when I learned how to make pesto from the abundant crop of basil in our backyard. When I think of soft buttery croissants I am sitting at the window of an old shepherd’s cottage we rented once in southern France, turning my head one way to take in the aroma of yeasty, buttery pastry heating in the oven and turning the other to smell the cool, herb-soaked morning breeze softly wafting up from the fields below.

When I think of saffron, however, my head is filled with vivid images that have nothing to do with actual experience. I close my eyes and I can see dimly glowing lanterns, mud-brick walls and shadowy figures melting into dark doorways; I can feel warm breezes carrying the scent of night-blooming jasmine and incense, I can almost taste silver platters of food piled with spicy, syrupy tagines, baskets of oranges and walnuts and pomegranates, and bowls of rose-scented finger water. I have never witnessed anything like this, yet it is so evocative I can almost feel I was once there. The only way I can explain it is that saffron is one food so steeped in the myth and legend of the places it is used, places like Persia, Morocco, and Moorish Spain, that everything I have ever heard, read or imagined about these places comes together to create an impression so strong it rivals memory.

Saffron is an enigmatic spice. Use too much of it and it becomes acrid and bitter, overpowering all the other flavors it comes into contact with. Use too little, and its perfume is wasted. Saffron is at its best when it just haunts your senses; like a whisper on your tongue, it leaves you wanting more but knowing it would never be the same if you had it. I know many people who have never tasted saffron, not being willing to spend those sums of money on a pinch of red dust. I had never bought it myself, still being on the fence about whether or not I even liked it, when about five years ago I was given an unexpected gift. Neighbors of Manuel’s mother had been to Iran and brought her back a jar of saffron as a present, and knowing how much I liked to cook she passed it on to me. I was astounded; inside the delicately engraved container was easily an ounce of blood-red, unbroken crocuses – the most expensive saffron money can buy. When it was opened the first time, the wave of scent was intoxicating. I was bewitched.

I have learned a lot from that bounty of saffron (the remnants of which are still in my spice bowl, by the way). I have learned, for example, that kept safely tucked away from both light and moisture, those little strands lose none of their seductive power; I have learned that it’s better to keep them whole, rather than crumbling them, so that their vivid, serpentine forms can be fully appreciated in finished dishes; I have learned that a long, slow soak in just-warm water helps preserve their fragrance more than a boiling bath; I have learned that certain ingredients seem to have been invented solely for the purpose of combining them with saffron: garlic, lemon, wine, lamb, honey, orange, apricot, rosewater, almond, chicken, cinnamon…

In honor of my recent obsession with Spanish food (see here, here and here), I created this dessert, in which saffron gives a touch of sophistication and exoticness to the most quintessential of Spanish sweets.

flan.jpgSaffron and Sherry Flan
Serves 4-6

1/4 cup water
15-20 saffron threads, or a good pinch of powdered saffron
2 cups evaporated milk (alternatively try one cup milk and one cup cream)
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
3 eggs
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup fino or amontillado Sherry

Start by warming the water so it’s just hot to the touch. Add the saffron and let it soak for as long as you can, preferably about an hour. Preheat the oven to about 325F/160C. Heat the milk, sugar and lemon rind together until the sugar melts and the mixture just begins to simmer. Take it off the heat and let it sit 25-30 minutes to infuse. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and yolks. When the milk has cooled, beat in the eggs, then strain the mixture through a fine sieve. Add the saffron water and sherry.

Pour this mixture into 4 or 6 (depending on their size) oiled, oven-proof ramekins, and set them in a deep baking dish. Pour hot water so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then cover the whole thing with foil. Bake until the flan mixture is set and jiggles uniformly (i.e. the center doesn’t jiggle more than the rest), which will take about 30-40 minutes. I actually never time these things, I just eyeball, so don’t take these times as the gospel! Let them cool until lukewarm on the countertop, then chill until cold. To unmold, run a knife around the inside and invert onto a plate.

To make the flans even more exotic, mix a little more sherry with some mild honey and a squeeze of lemon, and drizzle over the top. Then sit back and imagine yourself in a sultan’s palace, listening to a distant melody on the breeze and gazing up at the brilliant stars above…

Two New Cookbooks!


Here’s a short quiz designed to determine if you suffer from chronic cookbook compulsion. Answer as honestly as you can – if not detected early this condition can have devastating consequences for your marriage, your job – even your home decor!

Which of the following applies to you?
a. You buy new cookbooks because you want them, not because you need them
b. You’re willing to miss your favorite television shows in order to read your new cookbooks
c. When you try unsuccessfully to fit them on your bookshelf you conclude the problem is not the number of cookbooks, but the number of bookshelves
d. You wake up your disgruntled husband at night to ask, “honey, which one of these should I make first?”
e. You get up before the alarm, sacrificing precious sleep, in order to look at your new cookbooks some more
f. Realizing you won’t be able to live without your new cookbooks for a whole day, you sneak them into work where you surreptitiously glance at them when no one else is looking
g. All of the above

Oh dear, I’m too ashamed to tell you which answer applies to me, but seeing as I wrote the quiz, I suppose you’ll be able to figure it out.

My new cookbooks, hot off the Amazon.co.uk press, are:

Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
by Diana Henry

I’ve been drooling over this cookbook in the bookstore for over a year, and felt the time had finally come to drool over a copy of my own. Diana Henry has collected recipes from around all the shores of the Mediterranean for this book, and grouped them by theme, so that every chapter has recipes that share common ingredients and have whimsical names like The Spice Trail, Fruits of Longing, Of Sea and Salt, and Fragrance of the Earth. The recipes are spectacular and unusual; the writing is evocative, poetic and sensual. She recounts personal experiences and anecdotes about the foods she describes; you feel you are experiencing the people, places and history of these foods through the pages of this book before you’ve even tasted the foods. The photographs are vivid and luminous. A magical book, a piece of art and inspiration as much as a catalogue of recipes.

Sample recipes:
Duck Breast with Walnut and Pomegranate Sauce
Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
Moroccan Chicken with Tomatoes and Saffron-Honey Jam
Date-Stuffed Mackerel with Spicy Broth and Couscous
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Marinated Feta and Black Olives
Lemon and Basil Ice Cream
Piadina with Caramelized Onions, Walnuts and Taleggio
Chocolate and Rosemary Sorbet
Spinach and Feta-Stuffed Pork with Cardamom-Spiced Oranges
Amalfi Lemon and Honey Jam
Provencal Roast Lamb stuffed with Figs, Goat’s cheese and Walnuts
Spiced Quinces with Crema Catalana

Casa Moro
by Samuel and Samantha Clark

This book palpably abounds with love – love between the authors and their family, love of the cuisine they describe, and love of their adopted land in the south of Spain. The authors are the husband-and-wife team behind the popular London restaurant Moro, which serves their own particular interpretation of Spanish, North African and Middle Eastern food. This book is their second, and includes both recipes they serve at the restaurant and dishes they’ve learned from their neighbors in the small village in southern Spain where they live part-time. The photographs have a curious washed-out 1950s quality to them; I’ve seen this in other books recently and can’t quite understand it. They’re artistic in their own way, I suppose, but I would rather see food photographed in such luminous and vivid colors that you feel you want to eat the page. The recipes are amazing, however, and there are many of them; they cover much the same ground as Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, but they seem more rustic and hearty, an impression which is probably helped along by the photographic style.

Sample recipes:
Fried Aubergines with Honey
Saffron, Tahini and Yogurt Soup
Carrot Puree with Caraway and Feta
Rabbit with Rosemary Rice
Hot Chorizo Salad with Fino Sherry
Blood Orange and Rosewater Sorbet
Spiced Beef Salad with Fenugreek and Hummus
Pork in Almond Sauce
Chicken and Cardamom Dumplings
Dates with Coffee and Cardamom
Pistachio, Orange and Almond Tart
Roast Chicken Stuffed with Sage and Labneh
Chocolate, Chestnut and Almond Cake

Yum! Time to start cooking…

Edinburgh Gems: Suruchi Restaurant


As you may have deduced, I’m an Indian food junkie. When I first moved to Britain and realized how ubiquitous Indian food is here, I was delirious with joy. I’ll never forget my first day in Edinburgh, how driving through the city I nearly jumped out of my seat with each new Indian restaurant we passed – the Delhi Diner, the Bombay Bicycle Club, the Taj Takeaway… Visions of tamarind chutneys, saffron-laced sauces, spicy kebabs and koftas danced dizzily before my eyes as I quickly tried to calculate if my student stipend would reach to cover Indian dinners seven nights a week. That first night Manuel and I bypassed the supermarket and made a beeline for the nearest Indian restaurant, not even stopping to read the menu. We figured that with so many vying for diners’ business, they must all be good, right?

Wrong. That dinner was beyond awful. We ordered two meat curries, two vegetable side dishes, some rice, naan and lassis, and the only good thing I could say about any of this was that the rice was well cooked. One of the meat curries had unnaturally-textured pieces of chicken breast floating in a tasteless, insipid sauce, while the other curry was so scorchingly hot that we almost couldn’t tell that it was the exact same sauce apart from the kilo of hot chiles they’d added. There were no velvety, unctuous sauces, no pungent aromas of garlic and ginger, no subtle fragrance of spices – in short, no taste whatsoever. I remember we paid a small fortune for that meal, and slunk out with our tails between our legs, praying that by some freak accident we’d ended up at the only bad Indian restaurant in Edinburgh. How I wish that had been the case.

I have since learned that mediocre Indian restaurants have a long history in Britain. In the early 1950s, when the first wave of Indian immigrants opened up restaurants, they quickly discovered that in order to sell any food (for they couldn’t just feed the Indian community, since they mostly cooked and ate at home), they needed to please local tastes. At that time anything like Indian food would have been very unfamiliar to the majority of the island’s inhabitants, and these new food entrepreneurs had to figure out ways to not only make their food palatable, but also cost-effective. What was born is now referred to as the “Indian restaurant secret”, but it’s actually not much of a secret. These early restauranteurs came up with a formula that would form the basis of nearly every sauce the restaurant used, and it was basically just a mixture of tomato puree and oil. On top of that they would add cheap spice mixes and powdered garlic and ginger, along with other things to distinguish the sauces from one another. Liberal amounts of cream went into the famous ‘Korma’, things like bananas, pineapple and coconut were added to make ‘Malay’ and ‘Kashmir’ curries, and everything else was basically just a variation of the tomato-oil-powdered-spice formula with different vegetables and meats. It was obviously a hit, because Indian food quickly took off in popularity and within a relatively short span acquired the iconic status it has today in British culinary culture*. The only problem was that as tastes for everything else changed over the years, many of Britain’s Indian restaurants stuck to this tried-and-true formula, with generation after generation of Indian restaurants succumbing to the bland monotony of the ‘Indian restaurant secret’.

Obviously every rule has an exception, and good Indian food can be found if you look hard enough. Of course there are sleek, stylish, ‘Indian interpretation’ restaurants in every British big city by now, where you pay enormous sums of money for small portions of artfully-arranged, innovatively-flavored subcontinental cuisine. What I’ve been searching for, however, is a restaurant that has no Euro-chic pretentiousness, no high prices, just generous portions and generous flavors. At the top of my list for exactly this style of food is a little restaurant on Edinburgh’s south side, near the University, which has developed a delightful fusion between Scottish humor and Indian cooking.

Suruchi Restaurant is tucked up some stairs in a slightly claustrophobic space and has decor that reminisces of someone’s aging Indian grandmother. That’s easy to overlook, however, because the service is friendly, the food is magnificent, and to top it all off, the menu is in Scots. They have the best Butter Chicken in the city, a velvety, slightly sweet blend of tomatoes, cream, butter, and spicy tandoori chicken. They have Lamb Malabar, which has tender pieces of lamb simmered in a chunky toasted-coconut sauce, or Chicken Nirvana, which blends chicken with South Indian flavors of coconut milk, mustard, lemongrass and curry leaves. Their meat kebabs are magnificent, spicy and succulent, as are their vegetable pakoras, little balls of perfectly spiced fried chickpea batter (which come with some mango chutney so good I end up licking the bowl…). Another unusual offering is their Simla chaat, which is kind of like a spicy pickled salad, enlivened with potatoes, cilantro, crunchy chickpeas and banana. While the restaurant is pleasant enough to eat in, we mostly end up getting takeaway food, because at Suruchi it represents such a good deal: while most of their main dishes hover in the 7-9 pound range, a takeaway order for one has any starter and almost any main dish you want with rice or naan included and costs a mere £8.50. Such a deal! And for those who need a little more Scotland with their India, Suruchi is the (as far as I know) only restaurant in the world to offer haggis pakoras – and believe it or not, they are tasty.

Now that’s how I like to see Indian food adapted for local tastes! 🙂

*At work we have a microwave that provides pre-programmed settings for the foods most commonly eaten in the UK. Number one on that list, above bread, jacket potatoes and chicken, is ‘curry’. No one can figure out how much curry this setting is supposed to heat, or what kind of curry – meat, vegetable, beans, thick sauce or thin? – but it’s clear that somebody somewhere must be pretty confident of what this mystery curry must be!

Suruchi Indian Restaurant
14a Nicolson Street
(Opposite Festival Theatre)
Edinburgh EH8 9DH
Tel: 0131 556-6583