Thursday, October 28, 2010


 Saffron Flowers

Two ounces of home-grown Spanish gold—what a treasure! Nothing illicit here—I’m talking about saffron. I grew the precious spice in big flower pots from bulbs brought from La Mancha (central Spain), saffron’s home ground.

The flower is a type of crocus-- crocus sativus. These crocuses appear, not in the spring, but just in time for Halloween.

Saffron, the spice, consists of the dried stigmas of the small, mauve-colored, autumn-blooming crocus. The plant originated in the Middle East and was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the ninth century. Saffron became the flavor of status in medieval cuisine. It has been grown in Spain’s central La Mancha region ever since.

While I was collecting recipes and stories for my book, COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN, I visited La Mancha during the saffron harvest and followed the trail of this sensuous spice all the way from the field to the kitchen.

(I visited Bealar in Campillo de Altobuey (Cuenca), a small family-owned business established in 1959. It is the largest producer of saffron with the certification (denominación de origen) Azafrán de La Mancha.)

A field of saffron looks like nothing—clumps of muddy clay soil, stones, a few weeds—until you look closer and see the tiny flowers popping up from bare earth. Picking begins from the time the first few saffron flowers begin poking up through the dirt and continues daily. Depending on rain and temperature, this is anywhere from Oct. 25 to Nov. 5.
(Photo by Donna Ellefson)

The saffron flowers must be hand-picked early in the morning, before the petals open. Once warmed by the sun, the flowers open and become limp, making it harder to remove the stigmas. 

Crates filled with saffron crocuses are delivered to the mondaderas, the women who extract the three threads of the stigma from each crocus. The stigmas must be removed the same day that the flowers are picked or the flowers become pulpy and the precious stigmas are lost.

Deftly, the women open the petals of the crocus with the fingers of one hand and with the other, pull out the three stigmas. The purple flowers are discarded in a heap on the floor. The wisps of deep red saffron stigmas slowly accumulate on plates. Each woman will be paid by the weight of saffron she has prepared.

Once the saffron filaments are separated from the flowers they must be lightly toasted to reduce their humidity and to preserve their color and olfactory properties. The saffron is spread in sieves to dry over electric heating elements or, in the old way, over a brazier.

Traditionally, saffron production was a small, family enterprise, with each family planting no more than what its members could pick and process in a day—early morning in the fields, afternoon at the mondeo, the night tending the braziers for the drying operation.

Saffron thrives in only a few scattered areas in the provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Albacete, and Ciudad Real. Saffron grown in this region that meets quality specifications can be certified with the Denomination of Origin Saffron of La Mancha (Azafrán de la Mancha). DO certification promotes product quality and helps to sustain the deeply rooted customs and foodways of small growers in La Mancha.

When cooking with saffron, crush the threads in a mortar (or, use the butt-end of a knife to crush it in a teacup) and add hot water or other liquid. Let the saffron infuse for at least 15 minutes before incorporating it into a sauce or rice.

Here is a saffron recipe from my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA.

Saffron Ice Cream with Pine Nut Praline and Chocolate Syrup
Helado de Azafrán, Guirlache de Piñones y Sirope de Chocolate

Saffron lends a golden color and an aromatic, subtly bitter flavor to the rich ice cream. Saffron has a real affinity for chocolate, while the pine nuts provide a crunchy contrast to the smooth cream. Altogether a delightful combination. Ice cream, praline, and syrup can all be made several days in advance of serving.

Serves 8.

For the ice cream:
2 cups milk
Strip of orange zest
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
6 egg yolks
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 ¾ cups whipping cream

For the pine nut praline:
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup pine nuts

For the chocolate syrup:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon sugar

Bring the milk and orange zest to a boil. Pour the milk through a sieve into a heatproof bowl and discard the orange peel. Add the crushed saffron to the milk and allow to infuse 20 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Lift off the skin from the top of the milk and beat the warm milk into the yolks. Transfer to the top of a double boiler and cook the custard mixture over hot water until foamy and thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Fold it thoroughly into the custard mixture and chill.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker.

To prepare the praline, place 3 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a heavy skillet or round-bottomed wok. On high heat dissolve the sugar, stirring.

When sugar is bubbling, stir in the pine nuts. Cook, stirring, until sugar begins to caramelize and adhere to the kernels. Add 2 tablespoons more sugar, and stir until it melts and turns golden. Add remaining sugar and continue stirring and cooking until pine nuts are coated in caramel.

Spread the mixture out onto an oiled plate or a sheet of baking parchment. Allow to cool. When completely cool, break the praline up into small bits. Store in a covered container for up to 1 week.

To prepare the chocolate syrup, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over hot water. Stir until smooth. Stir in the oil, then the boiling water, then the sugar.

Place the saucepan over direct heat and cook, stirring, until it begins to bubble. Cook without stirring for 3 minutes. Remove and cool.

Makes ¾ cup syrup. Keeps refrigerated for up to 1 week. Can be reheated in a microwave to bring to pouring consistency.

To serve: Allow the ice cream to soften 20 to 30 minutes. Scoop ice cream into small bowls. Dribble with chocolate syrup and scatter praline on top.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


It’s been an unusually busy week for me, with two cooking demos for women’s clubs. (I wasn’t actually “cooking”, though I’ve done that before too.) The first, for the Costa Ladies Club, was a seafood how-to featuring recipes from my book, TAPAS—A BITE OF SPAIN. The second, for an international conference of the Soroptimist Club, was a demo of Andalusian gazpacho and white gazpacho, ajo blanco.

While prepping seven pounds of tomatoes and cracking and blanching a couple pounds of almonds are all in a day’s work, the hard part of the exercise is packing up all the ingredients and utensils in two or three tote bags and humping them to a non-kitchen space such as a hotel conference room. I think I’ll get my clever friend Peter Fix-it to design me a custom-fitted suitcase on wheels, with compartments to keep bottles of olive oil upright and tomatoes unsquished.  A place for a freezer-pack to keep the shrimp chilled--- A sling on the side for a roll of paper towels—Slots for knives and other utensils—

But, about the food.

The Costa Ladies wanted to know how to peel shrimp (being Brits, they call them prawns) and clean mussels. In planning a tapas party, in my book I suggest choosing one tapa from each recipe chapter. So that’s what I did, featuring seafood in every one. Here’s the line-up, chapter by chapter.

La Tabla—Cheese or Sausage Board—I showed the Ladies mojama, “ham of the sea,” salt-cured and air-dried tuna, served, like ham,  thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil. (On a quick search, I did not find this at the usual Spanish import sites in the US. I wonder why???)

Montaditos y Tostadas—Bites on Bread, including tiny sandwiches, open-faced canapés, toasts with spreads, mini pizzas. I showed the ladies bacalao, dry salt cod, before and after, and served tastes of brandada, a garlicky spread with salt cod and potatoes. (See the recipe below.)

Pintxos—Bites on Cocktail Sticks. Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas. Here I show how you can just open a can for some really nice tapas. Canned mussels in escabeche with half a quail’s egg and half a cherry tomato speared on a pick; and the classic Gilda, green olive, anchovy and pickled chile pepper on a pick.

Platos Fríos--Salads and Cold Dishes. Salads and other cold dishes make up the biggest variety of a tapa bar’s daily offerings. On this occasion, I showed the group how to prepare boquerones en vinagre, fresh anchovies, marinated in vinegar. Hey, look, these are really easy to fillet—Then, just layer them in vinegar for 24 to 48 hours. Everybody got to taste the boquerones. My audience declared them “better than the tapa bar.”

La Tortilla y Más--Potato Tortilla and More Egg Dishes. Because our theme is seafood, I chose to show revuelto, or scrambled eggs, with shrimp, mushrooms and green garlic shoots. I showed the ladies the difference between small, sweet gambas  and big langostinos .  In Spanish, there is a different name for each one—not just shrimp and jumbo shrimp. I told the group that the vein is edible, but not pretty. Remove it for some preparations, but don’t be afraid to eat it if it’s not been removed. I also showed them how you “suck the heads “ of cooked shrimp, because that’s where the delicious roe is. The shrimp-scrambled eggs (prepared in advance in my home kitchen) were served atop toasts, a delightful tapa.

A La Plancha—Foods from the Griddle. I had no stove, so couldn’t really grill anything. Having shown  off big langostinos and cigalas, sea crayfish (Norway lobster), I suggested making that sensational sauce—easy to prepare in the blender—romesco, a Catalan red pepper sauce (recipe is here). So delicious as a dip or served with grilled shellfish. I reccomended a Catalan arbequina olive oil for the sauce. The romesco was passed around with regañas, wheat crisps (recipe in the book), for dipping.

Cazuelitas—Saucy Dishes. This includes favorite tapas such as gambas al ajillo (sizzling shrimp); meatballs in almond sauce, kidneys in Sherry and patatas a lo pobre (potato casserole). I showed how to clean mussels, to be cooked in a typical marinera style with garlic and wine. My version is rather fancier than the basic fishermen recipe, as I include saffron and cream.

Fritos—From the Frying Pan. Many of us first tasted fried squid in Spanish tapa bars, supposing those golden rings to be fried onion rings! As I was running over my hour and lunch awaited the ladies, I asked if they wanted me to skip the last demo--how to clean a whole fresh squid. By popular acclaim, I continued.
Gently pull away the head. Here’s the ink sac, a silvery strip on the innards. Separate it if you want to use it for (sensational) black rice paella or squid cooked in ink sauce. Pull out the transparent quill and discard it. Cut off the tentacles and save them. Pull off the fins and save. Pull off the dark-colored skin of the squid. Look, the body is a pouch. You can stuff it. Or, for frying, use scissors to cut the squid crosswise into rings. (The ladies got to taste fried calamares at a tapas lunch, at Restaurante El Chaparral, El Chaparral Golf Club, Mijas Costa.)
(Many thanks to Gertrud Roberts and Emma Walkiden of Santana Books who helped out at both cooking demos.)

Brandada de Bacalao
Garlicky Salt Cod Spread

In La Mancha this spread is called atascaburras and it’s served with chopped walnuts, but in Catalonia it’s brandada and might be garnished with black olives. Serve it spread on toasts or as a dip with breadsticks alongside. Start this recipe two or three days before you intend to serve it, as the salt cod needs to soak for 36 hours.

2 large potatoes (1 pound), peeled and cut in chunks
1 pound salt cod, soaked in several changes of water for 36 hours
4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Cook the potatoes in water to cover until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon. Lower the heat to a simmer and add the pieces of salt cod that have previously been soaked. Simmer, but do not boil, for 10 minutes. Lift the cod out with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Save the liquid.

Mash the potatoes in a bowl with the crushed garlic. Stir in the oil, salt and pepper, and 6 to 8 spoonfuls of the reserved liquid to make a thick, smooth mash.

When cod is cool enough to handle, remove and discard all skin and bones. Shred or chop the cod and stir into the potatoes.

The cod spread can be prepared in advance and refrigerated until serving time. Bring to room temperature to serve.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Check out my article in the Los Angeles Times HERE about the coming of Jabugo ibérico hams to America. If the first wave of ibérico was called the “best ham in the world,” this may be even better than the best!

 I’ve been to see those famous hams on the hoof, in Jabugo (Andalusia) and in Extremadura. These are free-range pigs of the ibérico breed that are fattened on acorns (bellotas) from wild holm and cork oak trees that grow in the dehesa, a unique ecosystem in western Spain.

 Even before my visit to the pig habitat, I got my first intimation of what makes such superlative ham at dinner when I sampled fresh ibérico pork, the raw material for ham.

Cuts with names like secreto, “secret;” pluma, “feather,” and presa “prize” as well as solomillo, tenderloin, were grilled over smoldering oak coals. The meat was served medium-rare. We’re talking about fresh pork. Like prime beef, it was marbled with veins of fat. I tasted. Wow. This was absolutely the best pork I had ever eaten. The tender cuts very nearly melted in the mouth. The cuts from the shoulder, just chewy enough, were incredibly juicy. This is not “the other white meat.”

Wait! Before you start picturing clogged arteries, let me tell you about acorn-finished ibérico pork. The acorns are rich in oleic acid, the same found in olive oil. Because the pig does not convert the fat, the oleic component predominates and the meat is high in monounsaturated fat. That’s why acorn-fattened ibérico pigs are sometimes called an “olive tree on four legs.”

But, mainly it’s about deliciousness. This is delicious meat. It makes delicious ham.

While reporting for the LA Times story, I learned that fresh ibérico pork is now being exported from Spain to the US. It was José Andrés ( , chef/owner of eight restaurants across the country, including The Bazaar in Beverly Hills, with two more opening in Las Vegas later this year, who was instrumental in getting the first ibérico hams to America. José is a business partner of Fermin, the only Spanish company to meet U.S. regulations for meat slaughtering. The fresh ibérico pork now available also comes from Fermin. Look for it at Wagshal’s Market in Washington, D.C. (  ) and from La Tienda (

In Spain, I can buy fresh ibérico pork at local markets. Not that I buy it very often, as it’s quite pricey. I paid about $7.15 for six very thin loin chops (13 ounces), serving two persons. Cooked on a hot plancha, about one minute per side, they were delicious.

This is a photo of revuelto, eggs scrambled with mushrooms and ham. The recipe is on this page of the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 7.