Home on the Range: Clams steamed with wine and fresh fennel

Saffron adds its beautiful fragrance to a bowl of steamed clams. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Combined ShapeCaption
Saffron adds its beautiful fragrance to a bowl of steamed clams. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The envelope came postmarked Tehran and stuffed with crimson confetti: pure saffron. It came with instructions: crush, seal, steep. It came with thanks. Charlie had saved the sender’s life.

Charlie shared the saffron. He shared the instructions. In a pinch, he’d share the life-saving. He’s generous like that.

Once I read the note, I knew I was guilty. Previously, I’d rolled the red threads between thumb and finger, I’d tossed the crumbles into stew or sauce, I’d appreciated — but not marveled at — saffron’s sweet-hay scent, its golden glow and bitter bite.

The potent spice — stigmas of the saffron crocus, each hand-plucked and sun-dried — deserves the cook’s full focus. Now I, too, have Charlie to thank.

———

HAPPY CLAMS

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

1 bulb fennel with fronds

1 clove garlic, degermed

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, sliced into crescents

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons steeped saffron, see method

12 ounces waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth

1/3 cup dry white wine

20 small clams, scrubbed

1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Chop: Snip the frilly fronds from the fennel. Chop fronds with the garlic, lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover this fennel gremolata; set aside. Slice the fennel bulb into crescents.

2. Wilt: In a medium skillet, heat oil over medium. Slide in fennel crescents, onions, chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and the red pepper. Cook, stirring, until vegetables wilt, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and steeped saffron. Stir in potatoes.

3. Boil: Pour in enough broth to barely cover potatoes, about 1 1/2 cups. Bring broth to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover pan and cook until potatoes are easy to pierce with a skewer, about 10 minutes.

4. Steam: Pour in wine. Nestle in clams. Cover pan and steam until clams open, 5-7 minutes. Discard any unopened clams.

5. Rest: Stir in cream. Cover pan and let rest over low heat, 2 minutes. Scoop into bowls. Dust with gremolata. Enjoy.

Steeped saffron: Slide saffron threads (at least a tablespoon — better yet, more) into a mortar (or clean spice grinder). Crush to a fine powder. Seal this precious powder in a jar, and store in a cool, dark cupboard. To steep: Measure 1/4 teaspoon saffron powder into a small jar. Pour in 3 tablespoons boiling water. Let steep 30 minutes. Store any unused elixir, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator. It’s the key to brilliant saffron cuisine.