Wholewheat penne with saffron

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When I feel like having a healthy, tasty bite, and quick to prepare, I have two ‘superfoods’ that save my day: wholewheat pasta and saffron. They offer great combinations with many other ingredients, such as vegetables, cheese, fish, and meat. Today I added toasted sunflower seeds and pine kernels, a few porcini mushrooms, and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Wholewheat pasta is a blessing for a carbs-lover like me. In Italy we eat pasta almost every day (well, forget that ‘almost’) and it is common to have either durum wheat, wholewheat, or egg pasta. Wholewheat is rich in fibre, protein, and vitamins, but we actually have it when we want to add a crunchier and nuttier flavour to our pasta dish. Metabolism does the rest.

Today’s special guest, though, is saffron.

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Saffron offers you a palette of warm autumn colours: it is yellow on your food and it comes from the red styles of a precious purple flower. The plant itself grows slowly out of the summer into its autumnal ripeness. The little bulbs are planted in August and not watered, because they have to wait for early September rains. Then, the first leaves jut out of the soil and the flowers can be only hand-picked during the second half of October, before they open at dawn. Six purple petals hide three yellow, male anthers and the three red, female stigmas which are then toasted on almond and oak embers. Only the stigmas give flavour, but it is not uncommon to find also bits of anthers left in saffron bags, which will add more colour to the final product. You need up to 200,000 flowers for 1 kg of saffron. Luckily, you need only less than a gram for your cooking.

Its flavour alone is quite enigmatic, almost bitter and sharp, but yet so smooth and almost sweet when you let it dissolve in your food. It tastes like its ancient Greek myth, where the flower was the tragic end of Crocus, a young lover of nymph Smilax, favourite of god Hermes. And this bitter-sweetness is reflected in your food. I would recommend using Italian saffron from l’Aquila (PDO), but there are also other ones available on the market, particularly from Iran and Spain.

Wholewheat penne with saffron (serves 4)

400 g wholewheat pasta (penne/fusilli/any short shape)
1 bag of saffron (stigmas or powder)

Optional:
2 tsp sunflower seeds
2 tsp pine kernels

While you get the water for your pasta boiling, place in hot oven (180°/fan 160°/mark 4) a tin containing the sunflower seeds and pine kernels with a pinch of salt an a drop of olive oil. They will toast for about ten minutes while your pasta is cooking.

Add the pasta to salted, boiling water and let cook as indicated on package–usually, it is 11 minutes for short pasta. Do not cook too much al dente when you use wholewheat, because this type of pasta retains its crunchiness a bit longer than the durum wheat one.

To prepare the saffron, you can either leave the stigmas in a bit of warm water (the time depends on how long they have been toasted, it is usually specified on the pouch) and add them and their water to the pasta pot a couple of minutes before the pasta is ready to be drained. If you are using saffron powder, then keep some of the cooking water when you drain your pasta. Place the pasta in a pot, dust the pasta with the saffron powder, and add the little cooking water directly onto the saffron. Mix well.

If you are going for the optional extra of today’s recipe, add the toasted sunflower seeds and pine kernels before serving and don’t forget a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano! Enjoy!

by Max