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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Spice Baron - "Worth its weight in Gold... or close enough"

The Spice Baron
"Worth its weight in gold.. or close enough"

Fresh ginger root, green cardamom pods and saffron threads

The naming process occurred early this week - "The Spice Baron". It's straight and to the point when you look at the ingredients list, a couple of luxe items topping the bill.

Among the most expensive spices in the world, Cardamom, an intensely floral and spicy aromatic, ranks #3 at $30/lb wholesale. It's pricey, but it feels like a bargain when you consider Vanilla in the #2 spot, priced from $50-$200/lb.

But Saffron is in a league of its own - the Warren Buffet to Vanilla's upper middle class standing.

Saffron, with a radiant red coloring and sweet hay-like aroma prices from $1,600-$5,000/lb (depending on the quality). Walmart is currently selling 0.06oz containers for $17.74.  That's $4,720/lb (and you can bet that's not the top-of-the-line variety).

Ok... so it's not quite as valuable as gold (currently over $21,000/lb), but this is food. We're going to eat this!

"Pastry of the one-percent? Let them eat cake!"

With ingredients at these price points, I feel the only way to do them justice is with a formal, plated dessert - a pastry that requires architectural planning and tweezer precision in execution. I may regret this choice at 3am on Thursday evening as foam, fondant, cream and custard drip from every counter and cabinet... but where's the fun in a saffron cookie?

Saffron threads

Spice Hunting
"I just ate a mortgage payment"

Kalustyan's awning

Specialty ingredients call for specialty markets, and Kalustyan's in NYC certainly qualifies. 

With every spice, powder and potion imaginable, the aisles have an almost otherworldly quality. Half of the stock seems more familiar to the pages of "Harry Potter" than "The Joy of Cooking". 

So if you're looking for some glycerin flakes (pretty sure that's not a breakfast cereal), Glucono Delta Lactone (also known as GDL... as if that's any clearer), or a couple bags of blue cheese or burgundy wine powder (for your next just-add-water social gathering), I know a guy who can hook you up.

Bags of powdered blue cheese and burgundy wine

Yes, this shop has everything, but why was saffron stored separately from all of the other spices, safely tucked behind the register and available only upon request? How could I have spent $15 on this tiny bottle? 

Small jar of saffron threads

Saffron, a highly sought after "connoisseur" spice, frequently used to enhance the flavor and color of savory seafood dishes, owes most of its primo pricing to the labor intensive nature of production. 

Each 'thread' of saffron is the stigma of one of the flowers. Each flower has only 3 stigmas. So how many flowers are required to yield 1 oz. of dried saffron? 


That number is even more staggering when you consider the harvest is done by hand. High quality saffron ("Sargol" grade) only includes the very end of the bright red stigma. Lesser grades also include more of the yellow style, the stalk connecting the stigma to the host plant.

Still not impressed (even when you consider I'm holding 140 flowers in that jar)?

Then consider the fact that the harvest period is only 1-2 weeks long. After that, the very fragile flower begins to wither. Even after they are harvested, saffron threads remain extremely sensitive to PH fluctuations and light.

But here's the kicker. Domesticated saffron is sterile. Reproduction is dependent on human intervention.

Labor intensive, indeed.

After buying the Saffron, Cardamom felt like a comparative steal at $30/lb.

Cardamom is an intensely aromatic spice, characteristically similar to eucalyptus with somewhat medicinal tones. It's potent in even small doses (chewing whole pods is a common breath freshener). Those familiar with chai tea will recognize cardamom as one of the component flavors.

Cardamom is harvested in pod form with each pod containing anywhere from 10-20 seeds. Sold in whole pod, whole seed and powdered seed form, cardamom, like most spices, immediately begins to lose intensity once the seeds are removed from their pods and ground. However, just-crushed seeds can be steeped in hot water to release flavor, and the infused water can be used in a variety of preparations (cardamom custard? cardamom marshmallows? cardamom cotton candy?).

Green cardamom seeds removed from pods

The last of the spicy ingredients is probably the most familiar - Ginger. Ginger, which is indigenous to China, is actually in the same plant family as cardamom. The two should pair nicely (fingers crossed).

Young ginger, juicy and mild in flavor, is commonly pickled. Fans of sushi will recognize pickled ginger as the pale pink slices always served alongside that green mound of wasabi paste.

Older ginger is significantly more potent in flavor and is often used either sliced or ground. Despite the undeniable intensity of older ginger root, the cooking process has a neutralizing effect on the flavor. As a result, ginger is best added later in the cooking process to preserve that sharp bite.

A third preparation of ginger, ginger powder, is extremely common in both savory and sweet preparations, particularly with cinnamon and nutmeg. Think pumpkin and apple pie... or ginger snap cookies.

With Guest Appearances by...

After all the spice-talk, it may seem that Meyer Lemon and Mango are supporting players in this dish.

Not so! Mango and Meyer Lemon will feature prominently... very prominently. I've just spent so much time with my head in the spices. The fact is, the possible uses for mangos and meyer lemons are somewhat daunting.

Mangos, tropical stone fruits, vary significantly in flavor by cultivar. Sour and unripe mangos feature prominently in chutney. Raw mangos are commonly eaten with salt, soy or chili sauce.

Meyer lemons are a unique treat. More vibrant in color than standard lemons, the fruit is popular for its sweeter and less acidic flavor characteristics. Brought to prominence during the 1970's "California Cuisine Revolution", meyer lemons were originally introduced to the U.S. back in 1908 by Frank Meyer, an employee of the Department of Agriculture who brought them home from China.

 Enough talk... time to get to the kitchen. 

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