How to Cook with Saffron
We're continuing our journey into the world of spice this week with SAFFRON!
After turmeric (which we covered last week, check that out here), saffron is the next spice I hear most often from people as the one they want to understand how to work with.
Saffron can seem confounding. It doesn't look like any other spice. It's more expensive than every other spice, and it's not commonly seen in recipes.
But, don't worry after today, you won't even need to search for a recipe to feel comfortable using this spice (or any spice for that matter.)
I want to simplify and empower you to use everything in your cupboard, so let's dive into saffron.
Watch the video for 4 easy ways to work with saffron.
And then I want you to check out my interview on the Dating with Dignity Podcast with Marni Battista. Oh man, this one is so much fun! We talked about cooking together on dates, what you can learn from your partner in the kitchen and how to make a phenomenal, knock-your-socks-off salad. Check it out below!
A Hair Story
I felt a tug on my scalp as I put down my glass of mint tea and rose to return to the din of the Moroccan medina. I turned to see what my hair caught on. My long brown braids hung to the middle of my back, and tangled or tethered just about anywhere. But instead of a snag, I saw a woman’s hand grasping three inches of my hair.
Her small, wrinkled hand released all of the braids except one. She held the braid and quietly rolled it between her fingers like a cigarette.
Safiya, an Amazigh woman and grandmother, lived outside the medina in Marrakech. Although she’d seen faces from sub-Saharan Africa, she’d never been close enough to examine their locks.
She stared at my hair then looked up, her brow furrowed and eyes narrowed. I recognized the curiosity and questions in her face. It’s the same face my classmates wore the first time I rocked afro puffs to school. In an odd way, being a minority at home prepares you for the otherness of being a traveler.
The mul l-Hanut, who kept the jewelry shop we stood in, translated her question. “She asked, ‘Is this your hair?’ She wants to know how you do this to your hair.”
His cheerful tone momentarily betrayed the complexity of the question. I sat back down and exhaled, noticing the silver rings and bracelets twinkling in the fading sunlight. The story of my hair, of black women’s hair, is long and nuanced. I wondered how to convey that in a brief conversation. Would the answer get lost in translation?
I couldn’t immediately share the decades-long struggle it took for me to love and cherish my hair. Nor could I explain that my hair symbolizes my own black girl magic.
Instead, I simply said, “Yes, it’s my hair. I braid it myself. Here, I can show you how.”
I unfurled half the length of a braid, showing how I grip the strands of hair. Safiya leaned in to watch my hands at work. I folded strand over strand showing the pattern of the plait. I thought, I’m sharing something new and novel with an old woman.
But while in Morocco, I realized my braids weren’t new at all, but old. Very old. Safiya’s ancestors the Imazighen, also known as Berbers, are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. Like many African tribes, the Imazighen have traditions of hair braiding and adornment. Later when I researched online I found image after image of regal Imazighen women draped in elaborate jewelry and crowns of braids.
Suddenly, I felt at home. My beauty. My magic. My hair. This is where it originated. In Morocco, and in Africa, my hair was no foreign object.
For most Americans, Russia is just a cold place — the weather’s cold, the people are cold and the war is cold.
Before I visited Russia, everything I knew about it came from school. I had a year of IB history on the Bolshevik revolution. Plus, one course I took in college called “Love and Death in the Russian Novel.” It was as heavy as it sounds. To be honest, I had zero interest in Russia when I enrolled in that class. But, the class and authors — Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Dostoevsky — surprised me with their layers. It was one of my favorite courses I took in college. In the same way, Russia itself did not disappoint.
So what’s it like for an American in Russia? Especially a single, black female? Well I’m happy you asked.
For starters, all those things about how icy Russia is are true. It is cold here (at least in November). The people aren’t exactly cheerful and diplomacy doesn’t particularly flourish.
But I found their frozen facade is for a reason. These people have been through it. Their history includes Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, communism… Not to mention the weather is often below freezing. Russians come from a tough cloth, and being an American in Russia is an eye-opening experience.
While in St. Petersburg I hired a guide, Eugenia, she runs Smart Free Tour (look her up she’s awesome). She spent the entire day showing me landmarks and talking about the history of the city and the country. What I found the most fascinating was hearing from someone my age who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
She told me about living in Russia during the Cold War and when the Soviet Union fell. She remembered as a kid, the only fresh foods at the grocery store being potatoes, apples and carrots. We’re not talking about Medieval times, this was in the 90s! Hearing that was strange. I knew it happened in my lifetime, but as a kid I had no idea. My exposure level to the Soviet Union was Zahngeef from Street Fighter. I remember thinking as a kid: “What kind of name is USSR for a country?” And here was Eugenia, who seemed like me, but who had experienced so much in her short lifetime. War. Famine. The fall and rise of an empire.
So when she told me how great it was the years after Putin came to power, I was like, “Wait, what?” In the US, Vladimir Putin looks like an insane megalomaniac. But for a lot of Russians there’s still a halo effect from those early years. He saved the country from the brink of destitution. Putin, a hero? Well, excuse the hell out of me.
Even though I don’t agree with the politics, I saw why some Russians don’t give Putin the major side eye he deserves now.
In Russia, I got one question a lot from people. It wasn’t even always a vocalized question. It was a look that I could see in people’s eyes. When I got on the train or walked down the street, the stares and quizzical looks said it all: “Why are you here?”
I expected this to come from a place of xenophobia: American-hating Russians. But the odd thing was, I don’t think it did. They were in fact curious. They wanted to know what would bring this black woman halfway around the world to cold ass Russia.
For those who could speak English, I was happy to share with them that I was as curious about them as they were about me. And they would tell me how awesome it was that I had come to visit their country. They felt genuine excitement to see an American visiting Russia. And not to be stereotypical, but this moment was usually followed by an offer of a vodka shot. Which, who am I to say no to?
Also the fact that my name is Natasha seemed to bring smiles to a lot of people’s faces. “Do you know you have Russian name?” Da, da (yes, yes) my dad loved Rocky & Bullwinkle. I’m not Russian, but my namesake was a Russian spy ;)
By the way speaking Russian and understanding Cyrillic is a whole other story. I picked up about 10 good words I could say. But don’t let the Cyrillic trick you! You think you recognize the characters, but then you find out a P sounds like an R, and you see a backwards N and you realize that you know nothing.
Now as a black person in Russia, one thing is for sure: you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. I read an article about the worst places for black people to travel, and Russia was right up there on the list. Not exactly surprising. It said there’s quite a bit of violence against people considered to be black and to be extra, extra careful. Extra, extra? That second extra had me a little worried. But I saw the other countries on the list and I had been to a lot of them without incident, so I decided to press on.
I thought it would be funny to count how many black people I saw while I was there. Let me tell you, not many. I got to about six total. But I didn’t have any negative experiences as a black woman in Russia. My advice if you’re worried: stick to the big cities, follow the rules, don’t get too drunk and you’ll be fine.
My main gripe with Russia was the general lack of graciousness. I could be waiting in line for my turn and someone would dart in front of me when it was my turn. I did not let that ish fly by the way. I would get shoved around on the subway platform, or getting on and off the train. I’ve been in busy subways in New York and Tokyo, but in Moscow people act like they’re ready to fight.
The one thing I can say for Russian subways is America’s are absolutely ugly in comparison! I lived in New York for a year, the subway terminals are completely disgusting and sad. Being down there makes you lose all hope and joy. It’s like the dementors work for MTA.
Walking into the metro in Moscow and St. Petersburg was like walking into a freaking museum. There’s stain glass art, statues, paintings, mosaics. It’s gorgeous! And clean! I don’t think I saw a single pizza rat down there.
What's a spice you want to use more in your kitchen?
That's a question I posed to a group of 1000+ home cooks, and one answer that came up again and again was turmeric.
Turmeric that bright yellow, incandescent spice is an enigma for lots of food lovers.
What exactly is the flavor of turmeric? What does it go well with? How do you use it in the kitchen?
That's what we're breaking down today in The Dish.
Check out the video to learn more about turmeric.
And then I want you to check out my interview on the Tips with Toni podcast with registered dietician Toni Marinucci. We talked about common mistakes people make when cooking, how to get out of food ruts and ways to transform the flavor of veggies.
Catch the full episode here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/cooking-flavorful-meals-in-covid-with-chef-natasha-ho/id1322601423?i=1000509483552
You know those huge knife blocks they sell with 10-20 different knives in all sorts of shapes and sizes?
The advertising makes it seem like such a bargain because you're getting SO MANY OPTIONS!
But do you need all those options?
No. You don't.
In fact, I believe you only really need 3-4 sharp tools in the kitchen to be efficient and effective at making delicious food.
So here's why you should skip the knife block and what three knives you should invest in instead.
Check out the video to learn what they are.
And then I want you to check out my interview on The Kitchen Counter Podcast with Roger Anderson. We talked about how to get better at improvising when you cook and taking smart risks in the kitchen (and the importance of confidence for getting great at cooking).
Catch the full episode here: https://kitchencounterpodcast.com/taking-smart-risks-in-the-kitchen/
Recipes are a resource that every cook uses, whether they were passed down in your family or come from a Google search.
Now, with the internet we have access to millions of recipes, but that knowledge alone won't guarantee that you have a good outcome.
In addition to a good recipe, you actually need to know how to be a good recipe user. That's what I want to talk about today.
You can get better results (and take the anxiety out of following a recipe) by practicing these 3 habits.
Check out the video to learn what they are.
And then join me in the Travel & Feast Facebook group for more tips on how to cook food that's versatile and delicious: www.facebook.com/groups/travelandfeast
See you there!
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.