20 January 2011

Cooking with Sunrise

Living in the Middle East does wonderful things to ones spice cabinet. Where we might suffer from a dearth of fresh local meat and vegetables , it is made up for in spades by what can be bought not only at the spice souq, but even out of sacks at the local Carrefour (we get plenty of imports, so don't think for a moment that I'm starving over here - it's quite to the contrary). My favorite of all is saffron - the gold of spices. Back in Melbourne, it's actually costlier than gold and here only a little less, so yes, it's a guilty pleasure. However only a few strands will do the trick, making the investment worth it.

Saffron is the stamens of the crocus  flower, and carries with it the aroma of sweet nectar and floral plains of Iran. When used in cooking it lends a flavor of honey on toast, and the color of sunrise to the sauce. It is used extensively in Persian, Arabic and North African cooking, but also anywhere the spice routes delivered it across Asia, and for so long, that many cultures argue they were the original producers - although it does appear it was actually Greece.

When buying Saffron, ensure you are buying the genuine article - there are many poor substitutes, including safflower, which looks almost identical - ensure that the colour is vibrant crimson, with hints of deep yellow-orange. The strands should be slightly moist and surprisingly strong. When moistened, they will leech bright yellow - the colour of tumeric, but never substitute turmeric in a recipe - the flavours are not the same.

  • 2 tsp Coriander powder
  • 1.5 tsp Cumin Powder
  • 1 tsp Cinnamon powder
  • 1/2 tsp Cardamom powder
  • 1/4 tsp Clove powder
  • 1/2 tsp Chilli powder
  • 1/2 tsp Saffron
  • 1 tbsp oil (I use canola, but anything flavourless is good)
  • 2 tsp warm water
  • 100ml low fat yoghurt
(these make the curry paste)
  • 600g Chicken breast fillets, sliced into egg-sized chunks

  1. combine all the curry paste ingredients, starting with the Saffron and warm water, letting it soak for a minute before stirring the rest in. Then marinate the chicken in this for about 30 minutes or more.
  2. Brown the chicken in a medium-hot oiled pan
  3. Transfer to a covered oven dish (preferably a tagine) and cook in a 120ÂșC oven for 1 hour

Serve with couscous, rice or the salad in my next post.

Notes on the curry paste: If you want to save time, you could simply use your favourite curry powder and mix it with the oil and yoghurt to save the trouble, or use a paste without the added oil, then adding Saffron if the flavours combine well. If you want to get better flavour, theoretically, you could use the raw forms of the spices (eg. seeds and pods), dry-fry them and then grind them into a paste. If you don't like chilli, leave it out - the flavours work well without the heat too. These measurements are only a guideline - the balance of flavours is up to you, but my advice, take it easy on the cardamom and cloves - they can overwhelm almost anything if you go over the top. Once made, a curry powder can go in a jar in the spice cabinet, and a paste in a jar in the fridge to be used later - so feel free to multiply the quantities.

If you can't be bothered with the oven, slice the chicken smaller and pan-fry the lot, but make sure you switch the exhaust fan on, because those spices will smoke you out of your kitchen.

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