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Saffron is the type of ingredient that at mere mention makes gourmands salivate and debate and kitchen novices perspire and quake. We’ve seen both happen at Marcel Biró Culinary School. “The best saffron’s from Spain! I paid $60 for a thimble-sized jar of it just the other day!” a foodie may pipe, while someone at the back of the classroom may be wondering, “What is saffron? If it costs that much, I don’t think I even want to know.”
Here’s the deal on saffron: it’s a pungent, slightly bitter spice that comes from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus plant. It is available in yellow-orange powdered and burnt-orange thread forms and originated in the East. Whether you find saffron from Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, or somewhere else, it’s expensive. This is because it takes around 85,000 stigmas to create just over a pound of saffron.
The good news is because of saffron’s strength, a little goes a long way in adding flavor and color to soups, stocks, risotto, paella, meats, vegetables, and desserts. But if you don’t want to spring for the real thing, no problem. Simply substitute safflower, called “bastard saffron,” or turmeric, called “Indian saffron.”
Saffron Shrimp-Leek Soup
As in many other soups and stocks using shrimp, we use unpeeled shrimp in the preparation of this recipe. Leaving the shells on gives the dish an intense flavor the shrimp itself could not produce. You may wish to add 2 tablespoons dry white wine to the leeks while sautéing to further enhance this soup’s earthy but refined flavor.
¼ cup unsalted butter
1 pound 16/20 shrimp, unpeeled
4 threads saffron
4 large leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
3 cups fish stock
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the shrimp and saffron, and sauté until the shrimp become red, about 2 minutes. Do not allow the shrimp to brown, or they will become chewy. Remove the shrimp from the pan, and bring the pan back up to high heat. Add the leeks, and sauté for 30 seconds.
- Add enough stock to cover the leeks by about 1 ½ inches. Bring the stock to a simmer, and cook gently until the leeks are tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow to cool slightly.
- Peel and de-vein the shrimp, discarding the shells.
- Place the cooled soup in a food processor or blender, and process until smooth. Strain through a chinois or fine-mesh sieve into a clean pan over low heat.
- Stir in the cream. Simmer until the soup is thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp, and season with salt and pepper.
Ladle into the serving dishes of your choice, and serve immediately. Saffron Shrimp-Leek Soup is fantastic served with crusty bread, which you can use to sop up every last bit of flavor.
Hidalgo Amontillado Napoleon
Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain
Bodegas Angel Rodriguez
© 2007 Marcel Biró and Shannon Kring Biró. Excerpted with permission from the forthcoming SpanAsian Cuisine: From Ó, a Biró Restaurant (Gibbs Smith, Publisher), by Marcel Biró and Shannon Kring Biró. All Rights Reserved.