Q: To prepare saffron rice, I presume one uses the standard rice-to-stock ratio of 1-to-2. Does it matter when the saffron is added? Does one fry it in the oil along with the rice? Or does one plop it in during the simmering stage?
A: It really doesn't matter when you add the saffron. Its pigments and flavors are so soluble that they are quickly extracted. Just observe the following rules:
* Don't scorch saffron. That is, don't fry it with rice over high heat. Better yet, add saffron when you add chicken stock or water.
* If saffron is in stamen form, crumble it between your fingers. Otherwise, the stamens may clump and produce rice with red patches.
* Husband your saffron. Don't assume that "more is better." One cannot use rules of thumb for measuring saffron since it is too light to weigh, too bulky and variable to measure by volume. However, too much produces a medicinal odor and flavor and too little just colors the rice.
Q: How do you tell when okra is fresh? If intended for a stew, would you precook it? Should it be left whole or sliced crosswise?
A: Okra, the seed pod of Hibiscus esculentu of the mallow (and cotton) family, is ridged on the outside. When those ridges have discolored and the tip of the pod shriveled, the pod is quite old and should not be used.
Okra cooks very quickly. Even the older pods quickly reduce to a mush if heated too long. For the best color and flavor, avoid simmering or stewing. Instead blanch it -- whole or sectioned -- in boiling, lightly salted (1 1/2 teaspoons per quart) water for 2 minutes. Pour into a colander and splash with a little cold water to stop the cooking. Then add to a stew or cover with a sauce just before serving.
If kept whole (the stem end, which is very tough, must still be cut off), okra cooks just a little more slowly and holds its shape better once cooked. Its slimy stringiness is less apparent, however, when cut into cross-grain sections. Only fried okra (dipped in beaten egg, then in cornmeal) must be left whole. In preparing fried okra, leave the stem-end to reduce fat absorption.
Q: How does one prepare lamb shanks? Should they be boned or skinned, fried before braised? Can you recommend some flavor combinations?
A: For the best color and flavor, fry lamb shanks in a little olive oil until all sides are well colored. Then braise (simmer) in a flavored liquid of some sort for about 2 hours -- until the meat begins to come off the bones. If too much water is evaporated (in which case the sauce may become too salty or too thick), add water or stock. Here are some tasty flavor combinations:
* Shanks in Tomato Sauce: Prepare your favorite version of tomato sauce. Replace evaporated water with tomato juice. Serve with plain rice or with a risotto.
* Shanks in Espagnole Sauce: Deglaze the skillet: remove fat and shanks, heat until just smoking, and add 1 cup of red wine. Add a tablespoon of dark soy sauce, a tablespoon of tomato paste, and 2 cups of good beef broth (into which were cooked carrot, onion, celery and turnip). Thicken just before serving with a brown roux.
* Shanks in Broth: If you have browned bones left over from a beef, lamb or pork roast, prepare a broth with them. Then add about 3 or 4 cups to the shanks in the skillet as well as a hefty pinch of rosemary and a few vigorous grindings of black pepper.
* Shanks on Saffron Rice: Instead of browning the shanks, simmer them in lightly salted water (or better, lamb broth) for 1 1/2 hours. Then cook them with the rice; the two should be done at the same time. For more flavor, use the lamb broth instead of water or chicken stock for the rice.
* Shanks in Lentils: Do the same as for the rice, except cook the shanks only an hour before starting them with the lentils (which take a full hour to cook).