She's Just Mad About Saffron
With Mediterranean Diet Month still on my mind, I can’t think of a better story to share than one about a girl who fell so in love with a single Mediterranean spice, she followed it to the ends of the earth—or, more accurately, to Macedonia.
My very dear friend Claire Cheney has been cooking and farming with herbs and spices for many years. Early in life Claire realized that spices were the maestros of flavor behind her favorite world cuisines, and she started to experiment wildly with them.
Her kitchen pantry shelves are lined with spice after spice: Exotic pepper powders, Nigella, homemade Baharat, and pastes, and more. When you eat dinner with Claire, you’ll usually see two or three mortars and pestles sitting nearby, where she’s freshly crushed the spices you smell cooking. She often pops the tops off of spice bottles like champagne corks to give you a sniff of her favorite finds.
But every one of Claire’s friends knows that no spice has claimed her affections or usage more than her threads of saffron. Claire’s meeting with saffron was love at first sight – she became captivated by its incandescent color, its tea-like flavor, its labor-intensive harvesting, and its value to cultures throughout the world.
Last October, Claire set out on a quest to understand the story and process behind the legendary spice. She raised enough funds through a Kickstarter project to get herself over to the protected and designated regions of Macedonia where saffron is harvested, during the harvest season. Once there, she rolled up her sleeves and helped harvest saffron in the fields. She cooked saffron-infused meals with her host family, drank specialty saffron tea, interviewed local chefs and townspeople, and painted all that she could see.
When she returned, Claire held small bundles of saffron in her arms and hosted dinner parties weekly to test new saffron recipes.
In May, Claire presented her book, The Art of the Harvest, at Voltage Coffeehouse in Cambridge, MA. The book is her travelogue of this beautiful journey, made up of essays, interviews, saffron recipes, and watercolors from within the saffron harvesting capitol of the world.
Claire’s spice-inspiration has inspired my own cooking profoundly. I never shop now without buying a new spice or fresh herb, and I’ve been practicing my own spice alchemy in the kitchen, giving simple dishes like beans and rice, or soups, a subtle flavor spike.
When I moved out of my Boston apartment a few weeks ago to head back to Austin, TX, Claire gave me a most special going away gift – a vial of her harvested saffron, straight from those Grecian fields. I’ve been using it regularly, each time with whiffs of Claire in the room!
Bravo to Claire on her new book and for making the world a spicier place!
Claire-Inspired Cabbage Dolmas with Saffron
Makes about 6 dolmas
4-6 whole green savoy cabbage leaves
1 tablespoon Greek yogurt or sour cream per dolma (*I used vegan sour cream, for a dairy-free version)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 saffron threads or stigmas, whole or minced
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup cooked brown or wild rice
Juice from ½ large lemon
¼ bunch fresh dill, minced
¼ bunch fresh mint, minced
Salt to taste
Cook the dolma leaves: In a medium size pot, bring 2 inches of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, drop the stack of cabbage leaves into the water. Steam/boil them for about 5 minutes, or until soft. Once the cabbage leaves are soft, remove them from the water with tongs, dry them with a paper towel and set aside.
Make the filling: Heat the olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and saffron threads and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the chickpeas, cooked rice, and lemon juice. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the dill, mint and salt to taste, cover, and cook on medium-low heat for 1 minute.
Fill each cabbage leaf with a scoop of the chickpea filling, fold in the two ends and and roll them up like an eggroll.
Top with a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream - enjoy!