Many spices have doubled as folk remedies for centuries and are now under investigation for their possible benefit to modern medicine. This month we will explore a few of these delving into the scientific and culinary possibilities they offer.
Saffron is rich in antioxidants like crocin, picocrocin, crocetin, safranal, and kaempferol. Crocin and crocetin, pigments that give saffron its unique color, are thought to help protect against depression and have been shown to have anti-Alzheimer’s properties in human and animal studies. Safranal is being studied for its ability to protect the brain from oxidative stress and to enhance learning ability and mood. And kaempferol is thought to have anticancer activity as well as to help ameliorate depression and inflammation.
The recipe below was sent to CCSA as part of a series of emails from our resident chef, Dr. Linda Doody. She has been sharing her extensive collection of favorite recipes with friends, family, and the CCSA team as a means of maintaining connections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I think careful cooking is love, don’t you?
Four Seasons Pasta: A Year of Inspired Recipes in the Italian Tradition, Janet Fletcher (2004)
Generous ¼ tsp saffron threads (not powder)
3 Tbsp currants or golden raisins (preferably golden raisins)
1 cauliflower, 1½ to 1¾ pounds
6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely minced
Generous pinch of hot pepper flakes
8 anchovy fillets, minced to a paste
3 Tbsp toasted pine nuts (to toast pine nuts, preheat the oven to 325–350°F. Put the nuts into a metal pie tin. Bake until they are fragrant and lightly colored, shaking the pan once or twice, about 5–10 minutes. As an alternative, toasted pine nuts are also available at some grocery stores [e.g., Trader Joe’s])
2 Tbsp minced fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley
1 pound bucatini or spaghetti (bucatini [also known as perciatelli in Naples] is a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a narrow hole down the center, like a drinking straw)
½ cup toasted breadcrumbs (optional) (to toast breadcrumbs, heat 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a small skillet over moderately low heat. Add ½ cup of fine breadcrumbs and stir to coat with oil. Season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring often, until the crumbs are an even, deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. As an alternative, a handful of good commercial croutons [e.g., Semifreddi’s] or crostini can be turned into crumbs in a food processor by pulsing with the steel blade)
Soak the saffron threads in 2 Tbsp water for at least 20 minutes to allow the flavor to bloom. Plump the currants/raisins in 3 Tbsp warm water for about 20 minutes.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Trim the cauliflower, removing any leaves, and separate the florets from the stems. Try to leave the florets in large clusters so they don’t get soggy when cooked. Add the cauliflower to the boiling water and cook until barely tender when pierced with a knife, about 5 minutes. Lift the florets out of the water with tongs or a skimmer. (Keep the cooking water at a boil.) Let the cauliflower cool, then chop coarsely; you should still have some large pieces.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over moderately low heat. Add the onion and pepper flakes and sauté until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add the saffron with soaking liquid and the currants with soaking liquid. Simmer gently for a couple of minutes to flavor the onion base, then add the cauliflower. Season with salt to taste and stir to coat with the seasonings. Cover and simmer briefly to infuse the cauliflower with seasonings but take care not to overcook it; the cauliflower should be tender but not mushy. Add a few Tbsp of the boiling water if the sauce looks dry. If the saffron does not seem strong enough, infuse a few more threads in a little of the boiling water for a minute or two, then add to the skillet. Stir in the anchovies, pine nuts, and parsley. Keep the sauce warm.
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot over low heat. Add the sauce and toss well, moistening with some of the reserved pasta water as needed. Divide among warm bowls. Pass the breadcrumbs at the table.
Notes from Dr. Doody:
When purchasing saffron be sure to select authentic saffron threads, which are the stigmas and styles from the flower Crocus sativus. Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is sometimes fraudulently sold as saffron. They can be differentiated by look, taste, smell and price. Saffron is expensive, tastes bitter or slightly astringent, and has a distinctive aroma (hay + honey); safflower is cheaper, slightly sweet, and without aroma. Buy from a reputable vendor.
Note from Dr. Doody: This exotic combination is the most common way of preparing pasta with cauliflower in Sicily. I love the combination of sweet and savory.