Did you know that saffron would keep forever? A box exhumed recently from a 2,000-year-old year old pharaoh’s tomb was found to be as good as the day it had been laid to rest. Of course, the ambient dryness of that tomb played an important role. But it also goes to show that whole spices will last for many more years than ground spices, the flavors of which will evaporate within a couple of months. I buy all my whole spices if possible from an Asian or Oriental supermarket where a regular turnover is guaranteed, vacuum pack what I don’t need, and keep the ready-to-use supply in small boxes with good, air-tight lids.
Saffron is expensive. The reason is that it only comes from the stigma of a special kind of crocus. Each bloom is hand-picked; the stigma is also extracted by hand. They say it takes almost a million to make a pound in weight. This subtle spice has been used for thousands of years to flavor and color foods from countries as diverse as Sweden, Russia, Egypt, and the west country in England. It’s also wonderful with fish, both bouillabaisse and the Spanish paella. This is a recipe that combines the exotic and subtle flavour of saffron with the humble-but-nutritious chickpea and chicken thighs.
8 chicken thighs or drumsticks
4 ounces dried chickpeas
6 ounces basmati rice
2 fresh chillies, halved, seeded, and chopped finely
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon saffron stamens
1ounce fresh coriander
3 small, thin-skinned lemons or limes
2 large yellow peppers
2 large onions
3 cloves garlic, chopped
10 ounces chicken or vegetable stock
5 ounces dry white wine
2 ounces black olives, pitted
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
You will need a good, heavy stir-fry pan with a lid, or a big saucepan and a frying pan. Soak the chickpeas in plenty of cold water overnight. Simmer for a 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender. Meanwhile, throw into a small frying pan the cumin and coriander seeds and toss them around until they pop and begin to change color. Remove the seeds to a mortar and pestle and crush them coarsely. Place them aside.
To extract the best flavour out of the saffron, warm it gently in the frying pan, crush it to a powder with the mortar and pestle, then squeeze out the juice of one of the lemons and add it to the saffron, stirring well.
Prepare the chicken by seasoning it with salt and pepper. Slice the peppers in half, remove the seeds and pith and cut each half into large pieces. The onions should be sliced in roughly the same size as the peppers. Heat one tablespoon of oil in the stir-fry pan and, when it’s really hot, brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Don’t overcrowd the pan; it’s best to do this in two batches, four pieces at a time.
Remove the chicken pieces to a plate, then add the second tablespoon of oil and turn the heat to its highest setting. When the oil is really hot, add the peppers and onions and cook them in the hot oil, moving them around until their edges are slightly blackened. This should take about five minutes. Turn the heat down. Strip the coriander leaves from the stalks, reserving the leaves for later. Chop the coriander stalks finely and add these to the peppers and onions, along with the garlic, chillies, crushed spices, the chickpeas and rice, then give everything a good stir to distribute all the ingredients.
Season well with salt and pepper, then combine the lemon and saffron mixture with the stock and wine, pour it all in to the casserole and stir well. Cut the remaining lemons into slices and push these well into the liquid. Scatter in the olives in and, finally, place the pieces of chicken on top of everything. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook either in the oven or on the top of the stove for one hour, or until the rice and chickpeas are tender. Just before serving, scatter the coriander leaves on top and serve straight away.