The Scent of Saffron

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How frustrating! I’ve been sitting here looking at a jar of saffron – and I have no kitchen! I won’t for a while. It’s being re-done and, according to the contractor, the work won’t be completed for another few weeks.

Making matters worse, this is not just any jar of saffron; it’s filled with some of the deepest-red, most-aromatic strands of this exotic spice I’ve ever encountered. I can’t wait to put it to use in a paella. Or pasta.

Whatever the dish, I know it will sing. Because this is special stuff!

Purchased at the legendary Spice Market in Istanbul by a friend who brought it back as a gift — the seductive, red stigmas of the crocus that make up this highly-prized spice have entranced since antiquity.

Maybe you’ve seen the colorful Minoan wall-painting, called the “Saffron Gatherer” at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. Beautiful and captivating, it’s from the Middle Minoan period, 1600 BC.

Today, the primary countries producing saffron are Greece, India, Iran, Italy and Spain. And the cool little jar sitting on my desk just waiting for its moment in my new kitchen is from, of all places, Iran.

What’s the first thing I’ll make with my Iranian stash? Paella would be a good. Or risotto. Maybe orzo. My wife would like bouillabaisse. But I’m thinking about another dish. One that’s a bit off the beaten path.

Have you ever had fideos? That thin Spanish pasta, (sort of like angel hair) cooked by slowly adding stock (sort of like you’d make risotto) so that the pasta gives up its starch to form a flavorful sauce in the pan.

Well, actually you brown the pasta first in a few tablespoons of olive oil before adding the stock. And before that you soak 1/4 teaspoon of saffron in 1/2 cup of good white wine, maybe an albariño, for about thirty minutes. An hour is better. That then goes into the stock.

Here’s my idea: some chewy Italian pasta called Caserecce, a handful for each person, cooked slowly, fideos-like, in saffron-chicken stock, topped with pan-seared swordfish and oven-roasted roma tomatoes. A dusting of smoked paprika and a handful of Italian parsley will finish the dish. If you’re wondering, I’ll need four cups of stock for the pasta.

How does that sound? I can’t wait until the kitchen is finished!

Here’s a final note to think about: Saffron is the most expensive spice on earth. Yes, it really is. How expensive? $2,000 to $10,000 a pound!

Good thing a little goes a long way.

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“Sort of Asian” — Fast & Simple

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Don’t you just love those simple recipes that are so tasty you keep coming back to them again and again? Well, I certainly do.

Here’s one of my favorites — it’s a ridiculously simple recipe for a killer, Asian, hoisin marinade I use for a number of different grilled and broiled dishes. The original idea comes from award-winning Vietnamese/Chinese cookbook author and cook, Connie Trang.

What makes the marinade so special, bringing a haunting depth of flavor to almost anything you’re going to grill (except fish) is hoisin sauce. This truly amazing, ancient, Chinese condiment is made up of flavor- enhancing, fermented bean paste; seductive five spice powder and just enough red chile pepper for a subtle bit of bite.

And hoisin sauce gets even better when you combine it with a pleasantly- pungent, Vietnamese fish sauce; some Canola oil and minced garlic cloves for a deeply-complex mix that’s over-the-top good.

At least, I think so. Why don’t you try it next time you’re up for a touch of Asian and see if you agree. I’ve done chicken thighs and drumsticks, duck breast, pork tenderloin — all marinated in the sauce for about two hours before the meat takes heat of the grill.

The last time I whisked together this magical marinade, I used it to elevate some simply-grilled chicken — drumsticks this time. And in keeping with a “sort of Asian” theme, I decided to do some charred haricots verts “sort of like” those stir-fried green beans you get at Chinese take out places. Only I wanted to make mine much lighter.

Hoisin Grilled Drumsticks with Charred Haricots Vert

Here’s what you’ll need to do the dish:

8 to 12 drumsticks — two per person is good
4 tbs Hoisin sauce
2 tbs Fish sauce
2 tbs Canola oil
4 Cloves minced garlic

Haricots verts — a handful for each person
Extra virgin oilve oil
White truffle oil
Lemon juice

Steamed white rice
Scallion greens to garnish

The Preparation:

Mix together 4 tbs hoisin sauce, 2 tbs fish sauce, 2 tbs Canola oil, and 4 minced garlic cloves in a large bowl. Add chicken, rubbing with the sauce to coat well and marinate in the fridge for two hours.

When you’re ready to cook, bring the drumsticks to room temp. and wipe off the excess marinade before grilling them over medium high heat. They’ll take aprox. 10 to 15 minutes, turning frequently.

For the haricots verts — toss the beans with a splash of olive oil, some salt & pepper, spread them out on a large sheet pan, and place under the broiler. They too should take about 10 to 15 minutes.

Check the beans at about 8 minutes so you can turn them over once they start to brown and char. When they’re a bit blackened on both sides, they’re done. At least, that’s the way I like them.

Toss the beans in a large bowl, give them another little splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a hit of truffle oil, about a teaspoon. Go ahead, add a little more, if you like. And then salt & pepper to taste.

OK, it’s true. Truffle oil is passé in a lot of restaurant kitchens these days, but I don’t care. I like the way it tastes on the charred haricots verts, complimenting the Asian flavors of the hoisin grilled chicken.

Finally, some steamed rice. And that’s easy. Especially, if you use a rice cooker. (Most Asians do, I’m told.) And why, not? A rice cooker’s fast, easy and you don’t have to pay attention to it. But, however you cook your rice, rinse it thoroughly before hand to prevent stickiness.

Plate the dish as in the photo above — or however your creative instincts dictate. Then finish with a toss of cross-cut scallion greens.

That’s it. Fast and easy. Light and tasty. “Sort of Asian.”

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Dining in DC — Daikaya Izakaya

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It was the grilled avocado that really did it! Wow, who knew?

We were in DC with friends — and everything they suggested at their new find, Daikaya Izakaya, on the edge of the District’s China Town, turned out to be dangerously good. But the avocado with its natural lushness intensified by smoke and fire, accented by the slightly-sweet tartness of ponzu sauce, was the stand out. I more than loved it.

You might know that Izakaya means “bar”in Japanese. I didn’t.

It all made sense, though. Here at Daikaya Izakaya we were having small plates, similar to tapas. Bar food. Only it wasn’t Spanish, it was Japanese. This was satisfying and inventive Japanese bar food.

A grilled oyster. Fried Sashito peppers. Grilled octopus. Pork and Brussels sprouts. Salt grilled mackerel. Fried adobo marinated quail. Miso marinated salmon with fennel puree. Dumplings filled with octopus.

Beautifully simple dishes with surprising little twists. And when we finished everything on the table, the consensus was — order more.

The captivating menu at Daikaya was created by Katsuya Fukushima, a talented chef who delivers perfectly-cooked, seriously good-tasting small plates. And for good reason: Fukushima worked with renowned Spanish American chef, Jose Andres. Who just happens to be the guy most often credited with bringing the tapas concept to the U.S.

As you might expect, this hip, Japanese place has an extensive saki selection. 29 different varieties, in fact — listed under descriptive categories: light & smooth, aromatic & fragrant, complex & full bodied, and coarsely filtered. And lots of Japanese beers and whiskies.

But wine was what I wanted on that night. So I was pleased to find a crisp Sonoma Sauvingon Blanc on the small, well-curated wine list.

With lots of wood, low lighting and a moody mix of Japanese movie posters and wild patches of manga cartoons as wall paper, Daikaya is not only hip, but fun. Edgy, but at the same time surprisingly serene.

We stayed for quite a while.

Daikaya Izakaya / 705 6th St. NW, Washington, DC
202-589-1600 / www.daikaya.com

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A New Favorite — Piment d’Espelette

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It’s always exciting to find a new spice to play with — at least it is for me. Especially when the newly-discovered condiment happens to come from some place exceptionally cool. Like the countryside around a small French-Basque town called Espelette, nestled not far from the Spanish border in the southwestern part of France.

Piment d’Espelette! It’s now one of my all-time favorite spices.

Looking a bit like paprika, it’s also been a favorite of chefs from all over France (and some in Spain) who use it to perk up lots of different dishes with “color, smoky-sweet flavor and a bit of sass.”

I first noticed Piment d’Espelette in some recipes a few years ago — but didn’t think much about it. Nor did I use it. Well, now that I’m finding more and more recipes calling for the not-so-brash Basque spice, I decided to try a few of them. And I’m glad that I did.

But you don’t really need recipes.

Think about it like salt and pepper. Just use a few pinches of the distinctive, dried red pepper powder on boiled or roasted potatoes; grilled or pan seared fish, chicken or duck; in soups and sauces.

And, if you’re like me, you’ll find one of the best places for a dash of Piment d’Espelette with its gentle heat and subtle flavor is to season a plate of creamy scrambled eggs on a lazy Sunday morning.

So — what about the picture at the top of this post? What’s that got to do with Piment d’Espelette? If you look closely, you can see I used the spice to season the pan-seared duck breast. Sprinkled it on, along with salt and black pepper, just before I put the Moulard to the heat.

(The dish is actually “pan-seared duck breast with Piment d’Espelette over rigatoni in smoky red pepper sauce and charred haricots vert.”)

What’s the verdict? Have I convinced you to try my new most favorite spice? If so, and you’d like some for your kitchen, you can find Piment d’Espelette at Sur La Table and at many upscale markets. Or online.

Better yet, why not go to the source in Espelette. October is a good time. That’s when the quaint little Basque town, filled with peppers from the September harvest, throws their Espelette Pepper Festival.

Oh yes, and I almost forgot — if you’d like a recipe for the duck dish with Piment d’Espelette, just let me know. I’ll send one off to you.

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