Saffron has the reputation of a luxurious spice. Use it in tiny quantities for the most delicate of preparations like custards and seafood bisques, advises many a cookbook. Certainly, unless you live in saffron producing areas like Iran, Turkey or Kashmir, you’ll pay more for saffron than other spices in your collection, but its flavor is so dramatic that it’s worth a splurge. What I don’t agree with is using saffron only in special occasion dishes. Life is too short for that.
Saffron has a medicinal-leathery scent, with a hint of apricot and floral notes. Its fragrance will entice on its own, but it’s bold enough to stand up next to strong flavors. Today’s recipe is a good example. It’s a cold cauliflower dish, and it’s a good vehicle for saffron. The combination of coriander, saffron and white wine is the right blend of spice and acidity, and it gives cauliflower elegance that one doesn’t usually expect from cruciferous vegetables.
The recipe comes via a chef friend who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and I have made a few modifications to the original. Occasionally, I add basil instead of parsley or use chili pepper to give the dish a fiery bite. Although it’s called Cauliflower Greek style (Choux-Fleur à la Grecque), the recipe is classically French. The Greek part comes from cauliflower being cooked in olive oil, a common way with vegetables across the Mediterranean.
I’ve successfully used the same principle to make other variations with artichokes, green beans, eggplants or zucchini. Lighter colored vegetables are best, because they will allow you to enjoy another aspect of saffron–its vivid orange-yellow color.
Saffron is not a difficult spice to use, but I’ll offer two tips to fully unlock its flavor — precook it and add it to the dish at the last moment. By the first tip I mean tossing saffron filaments in a dry hot pan for a few seconds to warm them up and dry them out. Then you can grinding them in a mortar and pestle or crush the fragile threads with the tips of your fingers. Your fingers will smell heavenly, another bonus point of cooking with saffron.
Cauliflower à la Grecque is a great picnic food. It makes for an adaptable side dish, but my favorite way to eat it on a hot day is straight out of the fridge. A glass of wine as an accompaniment also doesn’t hurt.
Shopping for saffron: 99% of powdered saffron is adulterated with safflower or who knows what else. Don’t waste your money on it and instead buy the whole filaments. They should be evenly red (yellow roots indicate low quality). In Belgium I buy saffron from a local Iranian store or order it from Thiercelin, an excellent Paris-based spice shop. In the US, I prefer Penzeys Spice, especially their spectacular Kashmiri saffron. The availability of this spice is subject to politics. With the current tensions in Kashmir, I don’t expect to see much stock from the region, but with the lifting of sanctions, the price of Iranian saffron is likely to drop. Sanctions or not, most of the so-called Spanish saffron on the market comes from Iran which is the best you can find.
Cauliflower with Saffron and Coriander (Choux-Fleur à la Grecque)
You can also use artichokes, green beans, bell peppers, eggplants or zucchini. Adjust spices and cooking times accordingly. I added Cava when I recently made this recipe. Another light wine will do. If you’d rather skip wine, use water and increase the amount of lemon juice.
The color of the finished dish will depend on the freshness of your saffron. Saffron loses its color faster than its bold perfume, so if you find that yours doesn’t give you the vibrant yellow shade, don’t worry–the flavor will still be there.
1 head cauliflower, about 1 lb (454g)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped into small cubes
2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds (or 1/4 teaspoon coriander-cumin powder)
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1 cup white wine
salt and lemon juice to taste, 1 hot chili pepper (optional)
1 Tablespoon minced parsley
Separate cauliflower into florets. Set aside.
Heat a small pan on medium heat and add saffron filaments. Toss for a few seconds, but don’t let them darken. Immediately transfer to a mortar and pestle and let them cool. Grind to fine powder. Add a few tablespoons of white wine to dissolve the powder and set aside.
Heat olive oil on med-high heat in a large saute pan. Add coriander seeds, toss them in hot oil for a minute and add onion and garlic (and an optional chili pepper). Turn the heat down to medium and stir until onion is translucent. Add cauliflower and toss the florets well in oil. Add white wine and cover the pan with a lid.
Giving an occasional stir, cook cauliflower until it’s tender but still crunchy (7-10 minutes is my preferred time, but do follow your preferences; some people prefer their vegetables à la Grecque melting soft). If using coriander-cumin powder instead of whole coriander seeds, add it now. Also add salt and lemon juice to taste. Once the flavor is to your liking, add the saffron liquid and mix well. Take off the heat and add parsley.
Transfer to a lidded container and chill in the fridge for at least an hour before eating.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin