Paella is a favorite dish for us. We ordered it at a restaurant in France, and it was so memorable a meal -paella and red wine makes an entire dinner- that we had to learn how to make it. And so it has become one of Gil’s specialties.
Buying that one key ingredient, saffron, however, which turns the rice yellow and gives the dish its characteristic flavor, is a mega expensive spice. It is said to be THE most expensive of spices. But, to do your paella right, it’s a must-have.
The good news is that many of us can grow it. It thrives in zones 5 to 9. Saffron comes from a small autumn-blooming, purple-flowered crocus, called Crocus Sativus. There are other fall-blooming crocus, so be sure to get the correct variety. We ordered bulbs from a supplier in Wisconsin* and planted a small patch of it a year ago. This year we are getting one flower per plant. The flower yield is supposed to improve over the years until the plants produce as many as six flowers each.
Planting them is as simple as any bulb. This would be a great rock garden plant, or for the front of a perennial bed where you can keep track of what and where they are. To start a patch, prepare a bed with rich, sandy, well-drained soil. Plant the bulbs several inches deep and placed about 3” apart. All summer your crocus plot will look entirely bare. Seed a summer annual there that can be taken out when the crocus come up. In October, popping out of the ground will be a small clump of spiky dark green leaves for each plant, and the flowers will be soon to follow.
To harvest the saffron, pick the long red things. They are the stigmas and can be plucked out in a clump of three. Dry them on a paper towel in a dark dry place, like inside a kitchen cupboard. After three or so days they will appear dry. Pack them into an airtight container and keep the container out of light.
The stigmas should be soaked for a couple of hours before using. An alternative method is to roast them- heat the stigmas carefully in a dry heavy pan, then use the back of a spoon or a mortar and pestle to grind them into powder. The flavor is released by cooking saffron in liquid making it a perfect spice for things like paella. Only a very small amount is needed in cooking.
This really touches my “frugal” button. It’s great to find that this incredibly expensive little spice will grow here, and that it is completely simple to grow and to harvest. The flowers are pretty and paella is now affordable... ah-h-h-h, yes... -jmm
*McClure & Zimmerman, 335 S. High St., Randalph, WI 53956