By Melissa Pasanen
Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist
One of the things I love about my work is how one story often leads to another. I was in a warren of small offices in the University of Vermont’s Entomology Research Lab reporting a short Vermont Life piece on growing saffron in Vermont with Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, an agroecologist from Iran, and Professor Margaret Skinner.
After the pair explained how saffron-producing crocuses could be grown here in unheated greenhouses, I asked how Iranians would cook with the expensive spice. For that, Arash responded, I should meet his wife. Agrin Davari. Conveniently, he added, her office was in the same building. A few weeks later, I was in the cavernous kitchens at UVM’s Davis Center where Davari and other members of the Iranian Student Association were cooking a Nowruz spring feast featuring saffron in almost every dish, which I reported for Vermont Public Radio. Listen here to the VPR Café episode.
The saffron they were using in all of their dishes, including the main course of chicken (recipe below) is not locally grown yet, but some day it might be.
Recipe for Saffron Rice With Barberries and Chicken
(Zereshk polow ba morgh)
Adapted from Maman’s Kitchen’s recipe.
Note: Please see the original recipe for the specific way to cook Persian rice that creates a crispy and highly prized bottom layer known as tah dig. To simplify, I simply cooked 2 cups of rinsed long grain basmati with a couple of tablespoons of neutral cooking oil and a couple of tablespoons of butter and salt. After it was cooked and still hot, I stirred in about ½ cup lightly sweetened, local dried cranberries in place of barberries and 1 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in ¼ cup hot water. Barberries can be ordered from sadaf.com.
¼ teaspoon ground saffron (this will be about 1 teaspoon saffron threads; place threads in a small bowl and crush them with the back of a spoon)
6 pieces (about 3 pounds) bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces, preferably dark meat such as thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon Persian advieh spice (can be ordered from sadaf.com or substitute ¼ teaspoon each ground cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg plus 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin)
Pinch chili powder
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Place ground saffron in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon hot water. Set aside until needed. Pat chicken pieces dry and season well with salt and pepper. Put a heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat and add oil. When oil is shimmering, place chicken, skin-side down, and cook for about 6 to 8 minutes, until skin is golden-brown. (It might spit fat, cover pan if desired.) Turn chicken and cook on other side until golden-brown, about another 5 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat.
Reduce heat to medium and return pan to stove. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add turmeric, advieh (or substitute), chili powder, tomato paste, 1 teaspoon salt and stir together. Add lemon juice and ½ cup water. Stir and scrape up any bits from bottom of pan. Return chicken to pan, turning to coat in sauce. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, checking to make sure chicken is not sticking, about 20 to 25 minutes until meat is cooked through. Serve with saffron-barberry (or cranberry) rice. Serves 4–5.