Thursday, June 28

A Pea Pasta Fit for a Princess

My mom says I have expensive taste. You wouldn’t know it by the stores I go to, such as Marshall’s and Loehmann's. Yet, when it comes to eating, I like high quality foods and am more than willing to splurge.

That’s why I didn’t hesitate to buy saffron. Well, that’s not really true. I did hesitate. Not because of the price; because I have an uneasy relationship with saffron. It’s sort of like kissing someone, and the "wow" factor just isn’t there. You know, he’s a nice guy, but there aren’t any fireworks. So, you give him another try, and it’s great. Then the next time it's only so-so. You know what I mean? That’s been my experience with saffron. (Not with guys; Jeff has always been a great kisser).

I’m unequivocal when it comes to food -- when I don't like something, I don't usually try it again. Which is why I’m surprised about my willingness to give saffron another chance. When I first tasted it in a great Indian restaurant, I found its floral overtones unpalatable. I thought I would be put off saffron forever after that. However, another delicious Indian restaurant redeemed saffron for me by serving it in a lovely rice and pea dish. Since then, I've had it in Spanish and Middle Eastern dishes and have begun cooking with it (to mixed results). Yet, the recipe I share today is a keeper. And coming from me, that is high praise.

Given my ambivalence toward saffron, I decided to do a little research. Saffron has been cultivated for over 3000-4000 years. It is used throughout the world, most notably in Asian, Indian, Arab, Spanish, and Moroccan cuisines and can be found in both savory and sweet dishes as well as drinks.

Saffron is extraordinarily expensive at $1000 a pound. (No, I didn’t make a mistake with the zeros). Why so pricey? Because saffron is manually picked from the stigmas of the crocus flower. It is incredibly labor and time intensive, as a result. Additionally, it takes a football field’s worth of saffron threads to make just 1 pound! Fortunately, only a tiny amount is needed for most recipes, so you don’t need a second mortgage on your house to cook with it.

Most chefs and home cooks alike recommend using saffron threads instead of powder to ensure that you are receiving true saffron and superior flavor. The threads should be soaked in water prior to using in the recipe, and suggested soaking times range from 20 minutes to several hours. I soaked mine for 2 hours (see recipe).

In this recipe, the saffron was fragrant (not overpoweringly so) and slightly smoky. I loved it in the creamy sauce, which was satisfying yet not too rich. For a vegetarian version, simply omit the shrimp, which is how I ate it.

I also recommend using fresh English peas (see my pea primer for more). Just look at these perfectly round, shiny peas nestled together. They are sweet-natured and delicate and should be treated with care. That’s why I add them at the end of the cooking process. The heat from the sauce cooks them enough; overcooking peas not only makes them mushy but also depletes them of their nutrients, including Vitamins C and K.

I am submitting this post to Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen, the founder of the ever-popular Weekend Herb Blogging. Incidently, I am pleased to announce that I will be hosting Weekend Herb Blogging here July 9-15.

Pasta Shells in Creamy Saffron Sauce with Shrimp and Fresh Peas
Print recipe only here.

8 ounces pasta shells
1 tsp saffron threads
3 tsp water
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp butter
2 cups milk (whole or low-fat)
2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp dry white wine
2 cups fresh shelled English peas
Salt and pepper, to taste

2-3 Tbsp olive oil
24-28 extra large or jumbo shrimp

Cook pasta in salted water according to instructions.

Place 1 tsp saffron threads in a small bowl with 3 tsp water, and let rest for a minimum of 2 hours; the threads will swell in size. If you don’t have the time, then use this quick soak method. When you are ready to add the saffron to the sauce, just drain the water, but don’t crush the threads. Since saffron is intensely flavored, I suggest adding just a few threads at time and tasting as you go until you get the desired amount.

In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, melt butter. Add shallots, and sauté 2-3 minutes, or until softened. Add milk and flour, and stir until well combined and sauce begins to thicken and bubble. (I used low-fat milk, but whole milk’s added fat would make an even creamier consistency). Add white wine and a pinch of the prepared saffron threads. Add the fresh shelled peas to the sauce, and cook for 1-2 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp, and sauté for 5-7 minutes, turning to ensure that they brown evenly on both sides.

Add the cooked pasta and shrimp to the saffron sauce, and toss well to coat. Gently heat through, and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

BTW-I just found a delicious sweet saffron pilaf dish that Kate made over at Kate in the Kitchen.
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MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Susan this is really beautiful. I especially love the peas. Like you I seem to have an uneven responce to saffron. It is worth trying again and again because when it's a winner, it's usually really over the top good.

Anonymous said...

I shop at Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Ross all the time. They have great prices on kitchen stuff. ;D I've been hesitant to buy saffron but this recipe looks just too good to pass up! Maybe I'll take the plunge and finally buy some.

SteamyKitchen said...

well DANG. all this time i never knew you had to soak those threads for at least 20 minutes. i usually just soak in hot water for a couple of minutes - too impatient.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Just between you and me, I think I've had better luck with saffron than with dating. I have a passionate love affair with saffron! Throw in those fresh peas, and I'm over the moon!

Lucy said...

I love saffron for that vague but unnique flavour you mentioned. And her burnt-orange colour - that cannot be replaced by anything (sorry turmeric, but you have your own place).

Ah, you're making me long for summer.

Anonymous said...

this does look fit for a princess, so simple yet luxurious.

i have the same tentative relationship with saffrin, i find too much offensive but just the right amount is heavan.

plius you know how i feel about the fresh peas we have these days!!

cookiecrumb said...

Well, how cool is that? You've just about talked me into plunking down a few dollars for some new saffron. I've always found its flavor "elusive," and I think it's because my stash is OLD.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Tanna-You're so right.

Amy-Jump right in; you won't be sorry!

Steamykitchen-I'm pretty impatient too, but since so many chefs recommended it, I did it. I'll tell myself it made a big difference anyway. ;)

T.W.-Your secret is safe with me!;)

Lucy-I love turmeric too, but saffron is lovelier, isn't it?

Aria-The fresh peas really make it special.

Cookiecrumb-Pretty cool.

Kalyn Denny said...

What a great post. I agree with Aria, too much is awful, but just the right amount is subtly complex. This sounds like a great combination with the shrimp, saffron, and the lovely fresh peas.

Lisa Johnson said...

This looks so good! I think I've only used saffron once or twice and I had no idea that I had to soak it first. Boy do I feel silly!

Meeta K. Wolff said...

Just lovely. I love how wonderful creative this dish is using such ingredients. I too do not skimp when it comes to food. I think we'd be having a ball if both of us got together to go food shopping and then cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Nice one Susan!

Anonymous said...

I love this. Funny as I am just preparing a post "celebrating" peas as well! I have always loved saffron, on the other hand! ;-) But I can see the odd relation with it as well.

Patricia Scarpin said...

Susan, I have never had saffron and you've got me really curious about it!
This dish looks delicious, I adore peas.

Mikaela said...

Those peas are perfect! :D

bazu said...

I'm so glad to be back home and catching up on all my favorite blogs! Yours always has some food for thought. I agree with you- in most aspects of my life, I'm thrifty by necessity- I'm a poor grad. student, but I'm willing to pay more for truly good food. It is worth it in the long run.

Mishmash ! said...

Saffron and Kissing ?!!! hehehe...I liked that one....:))) and had a good laugh too...:) thats my kinda creamy and rich and the pic with that shrimp on top, slurrrrrrrrrrrrp !!!


Toni said...

I've cooked with saffron threads before, but never knew you had to soak them. Thanks for the tip!
Susan, this dish looks so good it's hard not to lick the screen!

Anonymous said...

I've never cooked with saffron before, but I love the ingredients in this recipe and might give it a try now. Thanks, Elizabeth.

Anonymous said...

Susan, I love saffron and your pasta looks delicious. My favourite saffron dish is actually a dessert: saffron and orange gelato from a wonderful gelateria in San Gimignano. Despite her protests, I dragged my wife there at 10 in the morning. She took one bit of the saffron gelato, aka crema di Santa Fina, and soon insisted we come back to try more flavours later in the day.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Kalyn-I guess that's why you have to keep trying until you find just the right amount.

Anali-Don't feel silly; now you know!

Meeta-That would be a blast!

Bea-I'll be checking that post out for sure!

Patricia-I hope you try it.

Mikaela-Aren't they just the sweetest?

Bazu-I couldn't agree with you more.

Shn-Seems unlikely, but it's the first thing that popped into my head!

Toni-Ooh, I'm so glad you like it!

Elizabeth-I hope you try them; they were worth the effort for this dish.

Rob-You're a good husband. ;)

Susan said...

Saffron reminds me of annatto, a soft glow of a flavor, more for color than anything else. I was disappointed, too, when I first had it. In my case, I was expecting the fireworks of cayenne and cumin, but now I appreciate "just a pinch." Lovely dish, post and photos, particularly the pea and saffron shots.

Deb said...

Looks beautiful! I completely agree with you on food. I'll hesitate to buy a $50 blouse on sale, but jump at the chance to buy some good balsamic vinegar for the same. Go is to short, right? Hey...I'd love to meet you for lunch in L.A. sometime. Up for it?

sra said...

Susan, just explored your blog - it's a treat to read. I love the picture of the saffron. Here's another titbit about this spice - apart from more serious health benefits attributed to saffron, Ayurveda has it that its usage makes you fair, and it's a component of many fairness creams and similar prescriptions here in India :)!!!

Wendy said...

A lovely combination. Will file this for later next month when my garden peas are ready to be picked!

Chris said...

Great post! I have missed your writing. I've never cooked with saffron threads before, so thanks for the tip!

Susan Voisin said...

Again with the peas! They look so delicious, yet fresh peas are just not available here. I love the idea of using saffron with them, though.

Stepmom said...

i love me some old navy but also want to always order salmon... so i'm with ya! the dish looks so wonderful & creamy... i may just have to splurge on some saffron.

Stella said...

Today is a day I wished I could eat seafood! Just looking at your pasta shells with shrimp & fresh peas make my mouth water. And oh the sauce,... why is life so unfair!?

Unknown said...

I had purchased a small vile of saffron about 6 mo. ago, and have not used it because I do not know the right way to use them. I did not know you had to soak them. I do now, so I shall try to use these very expensive threads.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Susan-Thanks, I'm glad you liked them.

Deb-Sure! I just moved to San Diego, so I'll email you.

Sra-I never knew that. Thanks so much! Now, I'd better find more recipes to use it in!

Wendy-They'll be lovely, I'm sure.

Chris-You just made my day!

SusanV-They're too good to write about only once!

Candy-Go on, spurge already!

Valentina-It's delicious without the seafood too. I promise!

Lannae-I'm so pleased to hear it!

Anonymous said...

I've no knowledge on using saffron. Thank you for the useful tips ! :) Definitely adds a good finishing touch to a creamy shrimp and pea pasta like yours :)

ayseyaman said...

Hi Susan,
your pasta and post look great.
I like to use Pasta Shells for Manti but next time I would like to try this recipe with only vegetables. I am sure that it will be nice as your promise above. :)

Peter M said...

Hi there, 1st time visitor to your blog and this dish looks wonderful. Nevermind the saffron...I think it's the fresh peas that make this dish tasty!

wheresmymind said...

We've put people on the come we can't make a machine to process saffron?? ;)

Ruth Daniels said...

This is my first (but not last) visit to your blog. I love the dish and the way you tell a story. Thanks for sharing.

Now I wonder when you plan on entering a pasta dish to Presto Pasta Nights. We'd all love a taste!

Madame K said...

Mmmmm - creamy pasta and peas! I'd love to eat that right now.

Anonymous said...

This looks sensational, Susan. I am kind of with you on the saffron question, mostly because the quality of the stuff you buy is so uneven.

Looking at this I thought at first it was a cold pasta shell salad with peas and shrimp and I got really hungry for it before I read the post. Wonder what it would be like with a saffron mayonnaise dressing?

Katie Zeller said...

When we lived in Andorra (on the Spanish side) there was saffron, of course, in the shops but all something just called 'color'. It was a powder used by a lot of housewifes to add the orange color to food (like paella) without using the expensive saffron. Some I talked to never had used saffron. I never tasted the 'color' and, I admit, I don't use saffron a lot.... after reading your recipe I think I will start!

Anonymous said...

I will try this recipe tonight. All ingredients are bought. I LOVE saffron and used to cook with it all the time, so did my mom.
Trader Joe's has very inexpensive saffron threads.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen fresh peas here on the east coast yet. But when I do, I'm making this pasta! This looks absolutely delicious. I loved your pea primer too. Great info!

Bron said...

Oh beautiful, I love this kind of pasta dish and with saffron!...swoon! I'm hoping to one day grow my own saffron, there's a small industry growing in my rural community.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Shirley-You're welcome!

Ayseyaman-I hope you'll agree with me.

Peter M.-Welcome! You're right about the peas.

Jeff-Looks like you've got an idea for a winning invention there!

Ruth-Why, thank you so much! I'll definitely submit one.

Karen-I'd be happy to share.;)

Christine-I hadn't thought about it. My husband would be glad to be the taste tester for us.

Katiez-I'm sure the saffron you got there was superior in taste.

Anonymous-I love TJ's, so I'll be checking it out.

Brenda-I'm so glad you enjoyed them both.

Bron-How interesting!

Anonymous said...

Well - I prepared everything last night before my husband came home. The sauce was delicious and ready, the shrimp nicely browned. I put on the water to boil pasta and we went into the living room to talk... 10 minutes later the smell of smoke filled the air... and I realized immediately that I had turned on the gas under the sauce pan and NOT the water pot...

Susan from Food Blogga said...


Oh, no! I'm so sorry to hear that. I wish I could make you a batch now. Hope the Chinese take out was good, anyway. ;)

Jeanne said...

Oh that looks gorgeous. And seeing as I have both some saffron and some fresh peas at home, this might just be on the menu tonight! Interestign what you say abotu variously liking and disliking saffron. I've heard from various people that the quality of saffron varies tremendously depending on where it is harvested - I smelled three different types in a market in Dubai and they were markedly different. So maybe it's the case that you don't like saffron from a particular area or (more likely) that the difference in intensity is not always taken into account when cooking with saffron and therefore some dishes end up hopelessly over-saffroned. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

well about the saffron topic it was "fair" to mention the name of Iran before asian, indian and arab countries not just being vague about the term of "middle east".

That's one of the national signs of our culture and we supply 80% of saffron of the world :)

Tina said...

This is perfect! I have saffron, shrip and peas just waiting for me at home! Thanks for the dinner idea! :)