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Zafferano (saffron), from the Arabic word zafaran, it’s a spice obtained from the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus. Originally from Persia and the Near East, it is widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region. In Italy it is cultivated mainly in the regions of Abruzzo and Sardegna.
The quantity of saffron obtained from each flower is so minute, that on average you’ll need seven or eight thousand plants to make just 50 grams of spice. No wonder it’s so expensive!
Beside being a spice, saffron is also used as a pharmaceutical drug. Due to its antispasmodic and antidepressant properties it’s one of the main ingredients of laudano (laudanum), an opiate used as a cough suppressant and analgesic.
The powder obtained from grinding the dried stigmas is dark red, but once dissolved in water it turns to a lovely golden yellow colour known as giallo zafferano (big surprise!), and is used to dye fabrics.
However, its most common use is as a spice. Hence today’s recipe, Italy’s most famous zafferano dish: il Risotto alla Milanese (Milanese Risotto). Here’s the traditional recipe, it’s not suitable for vegetarians, but can be adapted:
320 gr di riso Arborio o Carnaroli; 60 gr di burro; 30 gr di midollo di bue; 1 cipolla piccola finemente affettata; 1/2 bicchiere di vino bianco secco; 1 cucchiaino da caffè di zafferano; 1 litro e mezzo di brodo di carne bollente; parmigiano grattugiato.
320 grams of Arborio or Carnaroli rice; 60 grams of butter; 30 grams of beef marrow; 1 small onion, thinly sliced; 1/2 glass of white dry wine; 1 coffee spoon (3ml) of saffron; 1 and a half litre of beef broth, at boiling temperature; grated parmigiano cheese.
In a wide saucepan melt half of the butter with the beef marrow, add the onion and sauté gently until the onion is transparent.
Add the rice and stir gently for a couple of minutes so that it absorbs the flavour of the above ingredients.
Pour in the wine, stir and let it evaporate. Add one ladle of boiling broth, stir and allow the rice to absorb it. Continue adding one ladle of broth at a time until you’ve used up about half of it.
In the meantime dissolve the zafferano in a little of the warm broth in a small bowl, and set it aside to bring out its flavour.
When the rice is half cooked add the saffron mixture, stir, and then finish cooking the risotto by adding the rest of the broth one ladle of broth at a time. The rice should cook for about 20 minutes in total. The risotto should be “all’onda” (literally: ‘at the wave’), meaning ‘a bit runny’.
Turn off, add the remaining butter, a couple of tablespoons of parmigiano, and mix well. Cover and leave it to rest for five minutes.
Serve immediately with another sprinkling of parmigiano.
You can make a vegetarian variations by removing the beef marrow and using vegetable stock instead of beef broth. It will be more delicate, but still very tasty.