cocktail / gin / menu / menus / savory / Sober Sunday / spirits / sweets

(sort of) Sober Sunday: Afghan saffron and emails to my sister

IMG_8868saffron threads are the thread of the menu – cocktail optional, but highly recommended

My sister works for the UN.  She does something with refugee camps and saves orphans in her free time.  She has a bullet proof vest.  I think things blow up in near proximity to her.  Based on her Facebook pictures, it looks like a jolly time, living in Kabul or Juba or wherever, complete with smiling coworkers, karaoke and vacations in Bali, but I think that’s mostly because you don’t Instagram relief efforts the way you Instagram a kale salad.

She assures me that the pitfalls of her job and my job, at the core are the same.  The last time our phones simultaneously interrupted a family dinner, my mother gave an audible eyeroll, “What could be so important on a Friday after 8pm?”

“Sorry – work,” we both mumbled, thumbs madly dancing over our devices.  

My sister piped up first: “Security check – there was a roadside bomb.”

“Uh, well see Larry King apparently hates eggs and the production team is panicking that he won’t say ‘brought to you by’ and the name of our egg advertiser without making a face when we film Monday.” I hung my head in shame.

For the last 4 years, I’ve been helping clients get our post-consumer society to consume more and she’s been doing what?  Negotiating resources for refugees displaced by a decade-long conflict? Helping victims of a civil war build a new nation?  Talking about upping your sibling rivalry game – she literally saves starving orphans in Africa.

I’ve always admired her sense of purpose.  She sets her mind to something and like a pit bull, never lets go until she has achieved whatever ambitious goal she set for herself.  I kind of hate that trait when the goal is say, taking my toys, deciding family vacation activities, the benefits of buying organic lettuce, or proving me wrong, but when she focuses on a universal good – veterans benefits, hunger issues, health education, economic policy, nation building, refugee camp resources, those orphans – I’m really glad she never gives up.  

And while I admire her actions – I don’t really know what they are in great detail.  Our emails to each other are sporadic – hers tend to be concise, “I have malaria again! Hope you had a good weekend!”; mine tend to be lengthy neurotic passages outlining just how I’ll die sad and alone and surrounded by cats.  She would probably say my emails serve as a diversionary tactic; sure, my dating life is just as hopeless as providing security and services to refugees, but at least it offers levity.  

It’s good to be reminded that I want for nothing material in life.  That however flawed the social policies of this country are, however personally flawed I feel, I am fortunate enough to have access to food, shelter, healthcare – but it’s also difficult at times to feel one’s personal tragedies weighed against an international scale.  Each email makes it harder to find a common ground, or even a non-trivial thought.  Non-fiction words are hard to come by when their exact purpose is to create a world of fiction and escape.

I often wish we had less fractured communication, a way to bundle the smattering of emails, Facebook posts, Skype calls, and text messages as neatly as a ribbon around a packet of letters.  I would like to compile the threads of correspondence with my sister in hopes it would somehow explain the achingly wide chasm between between her selfless purpose, and my self-centered life, the stark contrast of worlds validation of the good that she does, and the kind of person I hope I can be.

Recently, we had a saffron-themed dinner party – my sister had given me a large amount of Afghan saffron and it seemed as good an excuse as any to make dinner with friends. We all had an adventure to toast – new job, new baby, new marriage, returning home from a long trip, about to move across the ocean.  I raised a glass and said what I wish every email to my sister could say: no matter how far you travel, no matter the journey you take, may there always be a place at the table, and a warm meal waiting to welcome you home.

Saffron Gin Martini


Credit to my amazing friend Soy, who makes the best ones around.  Makes 4.

Combine a pinch of saffron threads, (about 1/8 tsp) to 1 Tbs boiling water in a small prep bowl or shot glass.  Let sit 15-20 minutes while the flowers open.  Muddle slightly.  Combine  2 oz of dry vermouth and 10 oz of gin in a cocktail with ice, shake vigorously and strain into a pint glass or small pitcher.  Stir in saffron, making sure to get all of the saffron “tea” out of the shot glass, (you can “rinse” the glass with a little of your martini mixture).   Divide into chilled martini glasses, or as we usually do, whatever beverage vessel is available.  

Afghan Lamb and Saffron Pilau

Serves 4

A note on rose water: many traditional recipes will call for something like ¼ cup of rose water, however, most baking supply places in the US sell rose water, such as Nielsen-Massey, that is a distillate, even though it doesn’t say so on the label.  It’s very concentrated and should be used just like vanilla or orange extract, by the teaspoon, not the cup.  That’s what I used here.


  • 1-1/2 cups organic basmati rice, rinsed, soaked, and drained
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced thin
  • coarse sea salt and cracked black pepper
  • 2 pound lamb shoulder, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • water
  • 1 large orange
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
  • 1/2 cup shelled, chopped pistachio nuts
  • ¼ teas saffron threads
  • 1 teas rose water extract, such as Nielsen-Massey
  • 1 teas ground cardamom
  • 1 cup peas (fresh or frozen)

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Brown meat on all sides – You may need to do so in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan.  Remove meat from pan and set aside.  Add more oil to pan drippings if needed.  Cook onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they soften and turn golden. Return meat to the pan, add 2- 1/2 cups water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until the meat is tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, zest the orange with a vegetable peeler or ribbon zester, then cut it into matchstick strips.

Lightly toast almonds and pistachios in a small saucepan and set aside.  

In a small sauce pan, bring sugar and 1 cup water to a boil. Add the orange zest and let boil for a few minutes.  Add the saffron, rosewater, and cardamom. Boil for another 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside.  

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Strain the stock from the meat and onions.  Place meat and onions in a oven proof casserole and set aside.  Combine stock with the syrup and enough water to make a total of 3 cups liquid.  Return to pot. Bring to a boil and add rice, salt and pepper, and two-thirds of the nuts, keeping the rest to one side for garnish. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Pile rice on top of meat and onions in the casserole dish. Cover and cook in the oven for 20 minutes. Add peas, recover and cook for 5 minutes more.  Serve.

Garnish with remaining orange zest and nuts.

Sholeh-Zard (Saffron Rice Pudding)

Sholeh-Zard is a traditional Persian dessert 

Serves 4


  • 3/4 cup basmati rice, rinsed thoroughly, uncookedIMG_8867
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp saffron, crushed
  • 2 Tbs butter, unsalted
  • ¼ cup almond slivers, lightly toasted
  • 2 Tbs shelled, chopped pistachios, lightly toasted
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp rose water extract, such as Nielsen-Massey


In a large, 5-quart pot over high heat, bring water and salt, and rice to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes.  Add sugar and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, soften the saffron in a small bowl with two Tbs hot water.

Stir in saffron mixture, butter, ⅔ of the nuts (reserving ⅓ for garnish), cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and rose water.

Cover and simmer on low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until mixture has thickened to a pudding.

Spoon saffron pudding into a shallow serving dish or spoon into individual serving bowls. Chill for about 2 hours before serving.  Garnish with remaining nuts and a sprinkle of cinnamon or cardamom.




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