When I first shared a photo of this recipe for Saffron Lemon Lentil Stew, and in fact whenever anyone mentions the word saffron, the response seems to inevitably be either the statement, “Oh, that’s expensive!” or the question, “Isn’t that expensive?” The answer is yes, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t afford to use it. It just means we don’t use it daily.
Why is saffron expensive?
If you look closely at this beautiful photograph by Mohammad Amiri of crocus sativus, commonly known as saffron flowers, you’ll see that each flower has only three red stigmata and pistols. Each of these stigmata has to be picked by hand at mid-morning when the flowers are still closed so the delicate stigmata are protected (1). The process is labour-intensive and meticulous. Saffron flowers bloom in the fall for only one week, and it takes 75,000 saffron flowers to produce one pound of saffron spice (2). For all of these reasons, saffron is known as the world’s most expensive spice.
The origins of saffron
Ancient Romans and Greeks used saffron as a perfume (3) and it is still used today as an essential oil in some blends. It is believed that saffron originated in Greece, but today it is also grown in Iran, India and Morocco (4). The robes worn by Buddhist monks are called saffron robes because they were originally dyed with saffron; however, since saffron is costly, their robes are now often dyed with other, less expensive spices like turmeric instead.
Health benefits of saffron
Saffron is not only an exotic spice. It also offers a number of well documented health benefits. The benefits of saffron and its constituents as an antidepressant are well-documented (5, 6). It has also been suggested as an effective treatment of a number of conditions, including memory and learning deficits, hypertension and coronary artery diseases (7). One study showed that saffron odor demonstrates effects in the treatment of PMS, dysmenorrhea and irregular menstruation (8).
The bioactive compounds in saffron that can be attributed to its health benefits include safranal, crocin, picrocrocin, and crocetin, that have powerful antioxidant properties. These compounds are also responsible for the distinctive taste and aroma of saffron (9, 10).
I decided to add a few pinches of saffron to my Saffron Lemon Lentil Stew because of its health benefits, and because I wanted to introduce a taste that is not common in my home. You can easily make this Saffron Lemon Lentil Stew without the saffron. There are still layers of delicious flavour as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits from turmeric and rosemary, but it’s also fun to experiment with new flavours, don’t you think? With or without the saffron, this Saffron Lemon Lentil Stew is richly flavoured with tomatoes, lemon, garlic, turmeric and rosemary, and coconut milk adds a beautiful creaminess. It’s a great meatless dish for any night of the week.
Saffron Lemon Lentil Stew
- I Tbsp coconut oil
- 2 stalks celery
- 2 carrots
- 1 green pepper
- 1 onion
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 2 cups brown lentils
- 6 cups vegetable stock
- 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp turmeric
- 1 can coconut milk
- ¼ tsp saffron threads
- ¼ cup water
- 1 tsp fresh rosemary finely chopped
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- pepper to taste
- Soak lentils in water overnight.
- Crush saffron threads and soak in 1/4 cup warm water for 30 minutes to develop color and flavor.
- Drain and rinse lentils.
- Chop celery, carrots, pepper and onion. Mince garlic. Heat coconut oil on medium heat in a large saucepan. Add onions and cook for two minutes.
- Add remaining vegetables to saucepan and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add lentils, vegetable stock, tomatoes, saffron and its soaking water, and turmeric. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes.
- Add coconut milk, rosemary, lemon juice and lemon zest to the pot. Simmer for 10 minutes more to heat the coconut milk and infuse the dish with the rosemary and lemon flavours.