I have to be honest, I always have a bit of sticker shock when I buy saffron. Spices themselves are quite pricy, but saffron normally runs over $10 and there is just a little envelope in the jar with a few strands of it. I know a little goes a long way, but does it really have to cost so much?
So, I did a bit of research and – ok – I will admit, I think it should cost more than it does! The spice comes from the saffron crocus flower. A pound of dry saffron requires the styles and stigmas of 50,000-75,000 flowers – an equivalent of a football field’s area of cultivation! Forty hours of labor goes into 150,000 flowers (only 2 pounds of dry saffron). Ok, I get it. This stuff is tough and time-consuming to produce. I can see why the spice is $500+ per pound.
So, I have a bit more appreciation when a recipe calls for a small amount of saffron – giving it a honey, grassy almost hay-like flavor (not to mention an amazing color). When I saw this pasta recipe in La Cucina Italiana, I thought I would try it, since I had never used saffron in pasta.
I don’t know if it was the San Marzano tomatoes (essential!), the unique shape of pasta (it called for malloreddus but I couldn’t find it so used gemelli instead), the sausage, or the amazing taste of saffron, but this pasta became one of my favorites in just one bite. There is so much favor – a spiciness (I added a few red pepper flakes) with the fennel in the sausage, that flavorful saffron taste along with the sweetness of the San Marzanos. Not to mention a great flavor and sweetness from the onions.
So, next time you wonder why you are paying so much for saffron, remember the process to cultivate it, and make this pasta. One bite, and you just won’t care how much you spent to make it!
GEMELLI WITH SAUSAGE AND SAFFRON
One pound sweet Italian sausage
Heaping 1/8 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 (28-ounce can) whole peeled tomatoes with juices, preferably San Marzano
1/2 cup dry white wine
Fine sea salt
500 grams (1.1 pounds) fresh malloreddus or dried malloreddus (available at some supermarkets and specialty stores) or one pound of Gemelli pasta
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese plus more for serving
Remove sausage from casing; break meat apart a bit. Combine saffron and 1/4 cup water in a small bowl. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat; add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add sausage, reduce heat to medium and cook, breaking meat apart with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes with juices and wine; cook, breaking up tomatoes, for 5 minutes. Add saffron mixture and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Gently simmer sauce until thickened and flavorful, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente (about 6 minutes after water returns to a boil for fresh malloreddus). Meanwhile, gently warm sauce. When pasta is al dente, drain pasta, transfer to a large bowl, immediately add sauce and toss to combine. Add cheese and toss once more. Serve immediately, passing extra cheese at the table.
Tags: Pasta, tomatoes, italian sausage, cheese, onion, wine, Pecorino Romano, La Cucina Italiana, saffron, malloreddus, gemelli, saffron threads, san marzano, saffron crucus, flower, dry saffron, cultivation, labor