Cooking with chemistry: α-crocin

Saffron is expensive, but given that the yellow strings are plucked from individual flowers, each of which only three of these strings, it kind of makes sense. What gives saffron its subtle taste and brilliant colour is α-crocin, a carotenoid that makes up around 10% of the spice’s mass. It is often replaced with tartrazine (E102), a yellow azo dye and food colouring, which has a similar colour but none of saffron’s flavour.

Saffron is a lovely spice for sweet baked goods, but it also works rather well in savoury dishes. For #RealTimeChem week, I thought I’d give saffron’s savoury side a go, so I made fideuà, a type of Valencian noodle paella.

Click here to skip the rambling and go straight to the recipe (or just scroll down, which is probably about as fast).

The first time I cooked with saffron was in Sweden, on a holiday on Gotland. Saffranspannkaka (awesome saffron-flavoured rice pudding cake thing you eat with whipped cream and jam) is a big thing there, so I wanted to make it myself. But purchasing saffron in the supermarket in Visby wasn’t as straightforward as I thought; I couldn’t find it anywhere although they had all sorts of saffron flavoured rolls. I asked the person at the checkout who made a sachet of saffron magically appear from somewhere under the till and slipped it in between the rest of my shopping. I felt like purchasing drugs rather than spices.

Some of the stuff I used for the fideuà is quite difficult to get hold of in the UK, so here’s my version adapted from with stuff you can find in any larger supermarket.

I did cheat a little bit though as I brought the pasta (fideos gordos) from Spain. You can probably get it on Amazon or in a Spanish food shop, but I would probably replace them with vermicelli (broken into 2cm pieces, they can double as fideos finos, the thinner version of the fideos) or other very small pasta (such as maccheroncini).

Fideuà (Kat’s UK mashup version)

Makes 2 large or 3 small portions

  • 10 uncooked prawns (with or without shell, depending on how much you like to use your hands when eating)
  • 200g squid, cut into pieces or rings
  • 150g firm-fleshed white fish, such as monkfish or sea bass (Tesco had run out so I had to use river cobbler aka pangasius aka basa), cut into pieces
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 200g fideos gordos or other small pasta
  • appox 500ml fish or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp saffron
  • pinch of clove
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a few cockles if you like them (I didn’t actually, only used them because I had to buy a seafood mixture for the squid)
  • 100g mussels (I used precooked ones and washed off the sauce they came in)
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges
  • lots of olive oil

Heat oil in wide flat pan. Fry prawns until they change colour, then remove from pan. Fry squid and then fish for a minutes each, then remove from pan. Add more olive oil and fry onion and garlic for a few minutes, then add chopped tomatoes. Fry for another minute, then move to the sides of the pan and add pasta into the middle. Mix everything and fry for a minute before adding just enough stock to barely cover the pasta. Add the spices and stir.

Let the whole thing simmer on low heat until the pasta turns soft (around 7 minutes), adding stock little by little as necessary (the whole thing shouldn’t dry out too much but you also don’t want to end up with a soup). Then, add mussels and cockles, simmer for another 3-5 minutes. Add lemon wedges to decorate.


2016-10-30-17-05-37And to finish off, just for the lols, here’s my amazing oh-so-professional setup (yes, that is a pot of paint) and the reason why my camera randomly lost focus in the middle of it (it steamed up and got confused).


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