Early Egyptians used saffron as a dye and perfume as well as a flavoring agent; the Romans made it into wine. According to The Complete Book of Spice, by Jill Norman, the plant was used in China as early as the seventh century, and by the tenth century it had made its way to Spain. That country has the best conditions for producing the most pungent saffron, according to gourmands, particularly around La Mancha. By the time the spice hit France and Germany a few centuries later, stealing saffron was punishable by death, and people had figured out that cutting the ground version with safflower--which is similar in appearance and its ability to turn everything yellow, but not in flavor--was a good way to make a profit. (Getting caught cutting saffron with safflower, however, was another good way to die early.)
For the same reason, these days it's still preferable to buy the threads rather than ground saffron. And if you can find the spice at a reduced price, grab up large quantities, because it will keep indefinitely if it's stored well-sealed in a cool, dark place. Although many mainstream grocers don't stock it (a Safeway employee once told me that a woman started yelling at him because she didn't believe the spice could cost that much), most Middle Eastern stores carry it for $2.99 a gram. If there's no such market near you, Wild Oats and Alfalfa's are your best bets, with prices ranging (inexplicably, I might add) from $4.39 for .01 of an ounce to $8.99 for .015 of an ounce. I guess some saffron pluckers have better 401k plans than others.
Fortunately, you don't need many saffron threads to flavor the average dish. To re-create the saffron chicken entree served at Saffron (see review on previous page), you can use a single thread in the marinade and it won't make much difference in the final product. Since Saffron's chef, Mohammed Risati, simply eyeballs the ingredients, I came up with the following proportions based on several trial runs. Chef Mo's right about using a high-quality chicken--my supermarket-variety breasts came out much less tender than the ones I bought at Wild Oats. But while Mo says the cream is optional, my taste-testers thought it was crucial to the richness of the dish, and it offered an ideal vehicle for the saffron's lovely yellow hue. I also made one significant change to the list of ingredients: Chef Mo's marinade called for olive oil and yogurt as the only liquids, but I added white wine because the chicken kept coming out too oily, which was ruining the sauce.
Chef Mo's Saffron Chicken
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white wine
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 medium onion, diced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 whole breasts of chicken, each cut in half and skinned and boned
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon cream (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
2 bunches fresh spinach, washed well and stems removed
steamed basmati rice
Put 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1/2 cup of the white wine, a few saffron threads, half the onion, 1 tablespoon of parsley and the yogurt in a bowl; stir to combine. Add chicken breasts and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but no more than 12. Saute the remaining onion and the garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the remaining white wine and saute the chicken until cooked through, about 6-8 minutes on each side. Remove chicken and keep warm. Add to the skillet the rest of the saffron, the lemon juice, the tomatoes, the remaining parsley, the cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until slightly thickened. Add spinach and cover until cooked, about five minutes. Place chicken breasts over steamed basmati rice and divide spinach mixture among them. Serves 4.
Good to the last drop: Even rarer than saffron is a story that makes everyone happy. I've received several messages about "A Cup of Cheer," my December 24 cover story subtitled "from a coffee shop that celebrates the dregs of society." Wrote one reader: "We are outraged and offended by the title of your article." "I'm glad I went ahead and read the article," said caller Judy Roberts. "It definitely didn't have the same bent as the headline, so why such a negative approach?"
The fact is, mentally ill people are still looked upon by much of society as its dregs. That's why this coffee shop is worth celebrating: It's a place where people suffering from mental illness and other debilitating diseases can not only go, but find work. If, after reading my article, you don't agree that both the employees and the clientele at the Good Company Coffee Shop are courageous and very special, then stop by 9875 East Colfax Avenue and experience the place for yourself.
Everything about Good Company is good to the last drop--or dregs, as they say in the coffee business.