A pestle for the pistils. Bring on the stigmas, dude!
While I was lamenting the overly laid-back attitude of the Syrian Grocery Importing Company personages, I did check back (and they weren’t there) and I shall get in that store!
However, the pressing need of a round bowled mortar has found satisfaction. I can now grind saffron to powder and not lose any to a porous marble mortar or into my skin as I crumble the threads by fingers.
I had stopped at the Arax Grocery in near Watertown, not far from Mt. Auburn Cemetery before. It’s great for Middle-East foods and spices. However, I had not gone for hard goods previously.
I had noticed the phalanx of hookahs lining an entire wall, but that’s a little too Alice in Wonderland for me. Cheeses though…you won’t find a better selection than at Arax.
After faring badly in my spice-grinding quest, I have included stops at possible vendors on other trips. You might think that a housewares joint, like Pottery Barn, would have a brass or stainless steel mortar with a smooth round bowl. You’d think wrong. Likewise, the three Haymarket shops that sell herbs and Middle-East foods seemed likely. Honk. Wrong.
Searching the Boston area for little treasures like this has gone from annoyance to sport. I had homed in on Middle-East groceries and was failing there too. Clerks at three rolled their eyes and said they never carried such things.
In a shopper’s confession, I could have ordered an acceptable mortar and pestle set from cooking.com for $17, plus $9 shipping. The combo passed my choke point in shipping/item ratio, I like to hold the object, free shipping doesn’t kick in until $100, and the vendor was, at least temporarily, out of stock.
The game was afoot. I could see a set in the Syrian Grocery window, but that clearly was one of those ill-designed ones that had a tumbler-style bottom that would catch the powder and be a royal pain to extract the goodies from the edges. They might have what I really wanted in the interior jumble, but I’d have to get inside and be lucky enough to be there when they felt like opening.
I didn’t have a lot of hope when I took the slow way to a business lunch in Waltham. I cut through Brighton by the Stockyards to head up to Mt. Auburn. My first stop would be Arax, which is an apt metaphor. That river is a key boundary in the Turkish regions and is a metaphor for travel.
The store was as I recalled and probably as it was 30 years ago. There is a pungency, almost an axilla (good way, good way) smell. The decades of herbs, teas and foodstuff seem to float off the walls. I think of the caves of Roquefort or the grand aromas of Sherman Tobacco, which I visited for an article about the time the Arax founders immigrated to America. The old wooden building there slowly had become permeated with powder from great tobacco and had a chocolate-like tastiness in the air. Even people who are disgusted by the idea of cigars and sickened by burning tobacco enjoy the inside of the building.
Back to Arax, it takes 10 minutes just to scan the interior of the store. There’s food on shelves and in coolers floor to high ceiling. Entire walls have herbs or tiny coffee cups for that great silt Middle-Easterners favor. Other than the cheeses and olives, nothing seems quite solidly grouped. There’s a lot of mixed product placements that seem illogical to us ignorant type or at least to folk who are not the owners.
I did not find my mortar set and ended up asking a clerk. He didn’t think they had them but did ask the older woman who seemed to be in charge. She led me to a small counter area behind other goods. There were three sizes of exactly what I wanted.
After consideration and examination (and silly joy), I went with the smallest, just over two and one-quarter inch inside diameter bowl at the top.
I paid $13 for it. I suspect I could have bargained a bit, but was too delighted by holding it at last. The clerk ringing me out held the unmarked set up and called across the store to the male owner. He seemed to make up the price on the spot. Again, I didn’t quibble.
I have a good marble set that is fine for star anise, cardamom seeds and other coarse herbs and spices. For saffron, smaller was definitely preferable. (Think Dune and the Spice.)
Getting the Most from Saffron
It is easy to embrace the mythology of saffron. Indeed, by weight it is the most expensive spice, but it can be easy and inexpensive to enjoy.
First, buy it by the ounce and buy high quality. The Kashmiris, Spaniards and all claim to have the highest quality and most intensely flavored/colored. In truth though, there’s lots of bad and adulterated stuff around. You want whole threads, never powder, and high-quality Spanish saffron is easy to find and order online by the ounce.
Such a tin will last a long time, even if you use it every few days. It should cost in the nature of $50. That seems like a lot until you compare it to the absurd little tubes or packets with tiny quantities.
Buy the damned ounce, don’t be afraid to grab a big pinch, revel in its glories. When you do it this way, a serving might cost a nickel to a quarter. Look at your dinner ingredients. You can easily spend $6 for the chicken. What’s another 11¢ or 27¢ to make it beautiful and sapid?
When you go with saffron, the general rule is to dry, grind and infuse it first. This one to two-minute preparation has great payback. Exposing the maximum surface of your thread treasures and letting liquid pre-extract the flavor and color makes all the difference.
Nearly any hot liquid will work. Depending on the dish, you may use water, white wine or milk. Heat a few tablespoons or up to two ounces in a coffee cup in the microwave (30 seconds on high). Meanwhile, in your smallest pan, gently and quickly heat the pinch or measure of saffron threads for 20 seconds or so on a medium low burner.
You just want to drive any residual water from the threads. If you discolor them to brown or black, toss them and weep. You destroyed the threads. You just want to heat them to brittleness.
Grind the threads to powder and scrape it all into the liquid. Cover for 30 minutes or hours if you have the time. This infusion will maximize the flavor and color potential. When it comes time to add the infusion, you’ll almost certainly rinse the residual from the cup with more of the water, wine or milk to get every delicious drop.