Last night I had the opportunity to help a wonderful woman who was looking for a “paella” spice blend. For those who may not know, paella is a delicious, aromatic rice dish from the South of Spain, that features, among other things, saffron. Saffron comes in delicate threads from the crocus flower, and is the most expensive spice in the world, by weight. That’s because to yield 1lb of dry saffron it requires harvesting 50,000-75,000 flowers!

But this is a story about the wonderful woman, not saffron. The store didn’t have the spice blend she was looking for, and so she started to leave, saying “oh well, I guess I’ll make something else for dinner.” I stopped her and asked, why don’t you just make your own spice blend? She looked at me like she had never considered that as a possibility…because it wasn’t part of her recipe. I whipped out my phone and googled “common ingredients in paella” and within a few moments, she had picked up the spices she was lacking and was headed out the door. 

While we were searching, she asked, “How will I know how much to use?” This is a very good question, especially when freelancing with powerful (and expensive!) spices. But when it comes to cooking (not baking, that is a whole other story), if you are searching for an objective, “right” answer, then it is a lousy question. The better question to begin with is, “What do I want this to taste like?” Recipes are not exams that we pass or fail, they are one person’s collection of ingredients that they found tasty and wanted to share with others. Preparing “authentic” dishes is interesting, I suppose, but it isn’t really that important.

So instead of starting with the idea “I’m going to make paella,” say “I want a warm, fragrant rice dish with a little spice and citrus to go with shrimp and chicken (or whatever). Start there, and search for those flavors in ingredients you already have. Get on line and look at five or six different takes on paella, paying attention to what they have in common, the kind of technique they use to cook it, and making note of any choices another recipe made that look interesting to you. Then start building a flavor profile of the ingredients you decide are important to you. You can use the ratios other recipes use as a starting point, but the real guide will be your own taste! 

If most people use a teaspoon of garlic powder, but you love that flavor, put in 1 ½ teaspoons…If you don’t like your food too spicy, cut the cayenne in half. If the idea of spending $23 on ¾ of an ounce of saffron seems ridiculous, don’t buy it! But don’t let it stop you from making your take on a dish that was inspired by paella. The first goal is to make delicious food. If it happens to be authentic-ish (we are in Michigan after all), that’s cool, too. 

We can do this people. There will be mistakes (ask my family). But there will also be amazing creations. You may end up creating a dish that ends up being passed down in your family for generations! (at least until your great-grandchildren look at it decide they have a better take for their taste). Whatever the results, just promise me one thing: instead of looking at a recipe and asking, “what is this supposed to taste like?”, ask “what do I want this to taste like?”. If it’s delicious no one will complain that you left out the saffron.