Saffron: A Wonder Spice

Today, I am including an excerpt from mom’s booklet, A Pocket Full of Posies on some of the many health benefits of saffron. Saffron is expensive, especially when purchased at the grocery store. My mom always bought it by the ounce and it always came in those really cool little tins. If you and a few friends want to go in on one, that would be a much more cost effective way to put saffron into regular rotation in your cooking. I didn’t realize it until I was older, but she would throw it into everything: soups, stews, rice dishes (obviously), even with roasted vegetables and desserts.

Historically, saffron has been used for millennia, and we have written record of its use from Hippocrates and Galen who mentioned a wide variety of uses including: coughs, colds, stomach issues, uterine bleeding, insomnia, scarlet fever, heart problems, even gas. Saffron is extremely high in manganese, and contains vitamin C, magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamin B6 as well. Manganese is a trace mineral that is present in minute amounts in our bodies. It is extremely helpful in regulating blood sugar, metabolizing carbohydrates and fat, and absorbing calcium. It also aids with forming connective tissue, bones, blood clotting, and sex hormones. Saffron is being studied in the treatment of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and psoriasis.

I’m just wild about saffron. No, not the woman referred to in the 1960s Donovan song—I’m wild about cooking with saffron. Saffron has been used in recipes from appetizers to desserts, in cuisines around the world. There are the deep hues of red, orange, and yellow that enhance the pleasure of foods. The incredible aroma and sophisticated taste are unsurpassed. But saffron is under-utilized in American kitchens. It is time we understood the benefits.

As an herbalist, I know saffron has to be the finest anti-aging herb ever designed. It contains lycopene, found to stabilize vision problems associated with aging—cataracts and macular degeneration. In Chinese medicine, it invigorates the blood, which means it prevents strokes and heart attacks. It tastes better than aspirin and won’t upset your stomach. It also disperses liver chi stagnation. This is code for taking the elephant off your chest and putting you in a better mood. Saffron has been part of medical records in India, Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Rome. Abruzzi wrote, “Saffron arouses joy in every breast, settles the stomach, gives the liver rest.” In modern research, saffron has been found to contain chemotherapeutic agents. The most recent researchers at Rutgers University are currently identifying the active compounds in saffron and trying to ascertain their mode of action on cancer cells.

Historically, saffron has been used for afflictions of everything from cardiovascular problems to black plague, improving appetite and digestion of fats, relieving rheumatoid arthritis, and inhibiting helicobacter pylori infections involved in stomach ulcers.

There are easy ways to include saffron in your daily diet. I use a saffron infusion in vegetable, fish (bouillabaisse), egg drop, and even miso soup. The aroma, a musky rich complexity, occurs immediately and becomes more complex over time. Add saffron in an herb mixture to a favorite recipe of seafood, chicken, lamb, eggs, paella, rice, beans, chutneys, nut and spice mixtures. A few filaments can be added to scrambled eggs along with smoked salmon and/or vegetables. Adding saffron to your favorite quiche is colorful. Using saffron in a marinade for fish, chicken, or lamb for a curry or BBQ will elicit animated commentary from your consumers. Rice dishes are a perfect foil for saffron. When splurging, it can be baked in bread and desserts such as nut cakes or rice pudding, as well as added to berries or ice cream.

The Rutgers researchers were explicit: saffron works better when taken by oral ingestion. What are we waiting for?

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