Upgrade a Southern classic: Saffron shimp and grits

I've always been obsessed with saffron. As luck would have it, it's also the most expensive spice in the world. What makes it so expensive?

Saffron comes from the crocus flower, which blooms just once every year. In the fall, when the flower opens, just three tiny threads (or stigmas) emerge. They are reddish orange and can only be hand-picked mid-morning on a sunny day for peak flavor. It's an ordeal.

saffron crocus flower

Shrimp and grits is a classic dish, but once I made it with saffron, I can never go back. It would be too straight down the line. It's difficult to describe the flavor of saffron. The way the woodsy, earthy flavor blends in with the cream and butter, and turns the grits into a warm marigold, is magic.

My advice would be to get a high-quality saffron, because like a good face cream, a little goes a long way. Once, during a trip to Egypt (pictured below), I searched for saffron at a bazaar. Heaps of spices sat in burlap sacks, but the saffron seemed dry and too light orange. I asked for the good stuff, and they brought me inside. A sealed spice jar sat by the register for safekeeping, and featured blood red strands of saffron. I was sold. 

Fayeruz Regan and Robert Regan in Cairo, Egypt

Here's how to make saffron shrimp and grits.


  • 3 1/2 cups of water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • a pinch of saffron (7-8 threads)
  • 1 cup of quick grits
  • 1/3 teaspoon salt, plus a few dashes for the shrimp
  • a few dashes of olive oil
  • a few pats of butter (to taste)
  • 1/2 lb of peeled raw shrimp
  • 2 cloves of chopped garlic

spice bazaar in egypt


  • In a saucepan, heat a few pats of butter and a dash of olive oil on low heat
  • Use a thumb to gently break and sprinkle in most of the saffron
  • Stir on low heat for at least 10 minutes, to release the flavor and color Though the longer the better, and I sometimes begin this step a half hour before even cooking the recipe, while I'm piddling around the house.
  • On a separate burner, bring the water and salt to a boil in a small pot
  • Gently stir in the grits
  • Stir in the cream
  • Reduce heat to medium-low, sprinkle in the remaining saffron, and cover
  • Stir the grits occasionaly, and cook for for 5-7 minutes
  • While the grits are cooking, raise the heat in the saucepan to medium-high
  • Add a few more pats of butter and dashes of olive oil
  • Toss in the garlic and stir until soft, ensuring the heat doesn't brown it too quickly
  • Toss in shrimp, sprinkle with salt, and stir until cooked just enough
  • The grits on the second burner should be complete - remove cover
  • Once the shrimp is cooked just enough, remove from heat, take a spatula, and scrape the shrimp and all the drippings into the grits
  • Stir, sample, and season to taste with any additinal salt or butter. If the mixture feels dry, feel free to add more cream or water.
  • If you wish to add more saffron for a deeper flavor, stir some into the pot and let it simmer, as it takes a bit of time to release the flavor and color.

Spoon into a bowl, enjoy, and I dare you to go back to the classic version. See you on the other side.






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