This is a traditional North African wedding banquet dish. I know this because it says so in the book from which I adapted it called “The North African Vegetarian Table” by Kitty Morse. I made this dish many years ago without the saffron because I don’t generally buy saffron. Not because it isn’t grown locally (though theoretically, if I was more of a madwoman than I am, I could grow it myself) but because it’s expensive. In a funny circular way I came to know this dish more personally through my friend Sharon who gave me an enormous package of envelopes of powdered saffron. I thought she had gotten it from her own travels. I didn’t use any of it until now because I’m not used to having 50 envelopes of powdered saffron at my disposal. It seems so precious a gift and I have enjoyed seeing that exotic treasure every time I open my spice cabinet for the last year and every single time I see it I say to myself “I need to make a saffron dish soon because I have so much of it!” And then I would manage, somehow, not to make any saffron dishes.
It finally occurred to me that while spices are known to last for quite some time it is also known that they lose their integrity with each year in storage and while it is certainly lovely to open my spice cabinet and see my exotic precious gift of saffron sitting there, it would be embarrassing to never use it and have wasted it all. So I finally returned to this dish that I made years ago without saffron and this time I got to experience it how it’s supposed to be. It was so good I knew I would immediately write my version of it here, to share with all of you. But therein lay a problem: there are all kinds of powdered saffron grades and often they are mixed with things like turmeric and if I’m to give you a recipe then I need to help you find what I used or come up with equivalents. This turned into two hours of fruitless and increasingly frustrating research. I translated every word on the packaging into English and nowhere was there a word for saffron or even turmeric listed. The only ingredient listed was corn starch and a mysterious secret formula which makes up 14% of the ingredients. Formula E-102. I found out only one thing which is that this product I used is made in Novelda, Espana which really is a saffron producing region. The company that made mine is nowhere to be found online. So I put in a desperate call to my friend Sharon to get more information on where she got this strangely unlisted gold.
She told me that her ex-sister-in-law (a Moroccan woman) had made her some fantastic food using this saffron and so Sharon asked her if she could bring her back some of the same stuff she uses the next time she traveled back home. Sharon imagined that B would bring her a few small envelopes but as it turned out she brought her three big packages of it, each containing about 50 envelopes of saffron. This is the stuff she uses in her own cooking. Sharon shared the gift with me knowing I would appreciate it. However, she doesn’t know any more about this particular brand of saffron than I could find out.
The funny thing is that when I told Sharon about the dish I was writing the recipe for she said she had had that same dish at her brother’s wedding in Morocco and that she’s wanted to know how to make it for a long time. It’s funny how the first recipe I use this saffron for is one she’s had in its country of origin and that it was her gift that made it possible for me to make it. The version Sharon had was different from the one in the book that I followed (and then changed for personal taste). The thing that seems key is the saffron, cinnamon, caramelized onion, and raisins. The version in my book includes almonds and hard boiled eggs. The version Sharon had at her brother’s wedding banquet sounds more like my adaptation without those ingredients. Try it and see what you think. I include the amount of saffron in threads as it appears in the original recipe and then if you have powdered you can do as I did and use an envelop of it. I’m not generally a fan of sweet in my savory and cinnamon is for me, as it is for many Americans, a spice for sweet food. It is used in a lot of savory dishes in North African food and in this context I find I actually enjoy it.