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Rice with Sardines

Updated February 23, 2016
This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

The humble sardine can be sublime, as this dish demonstrates. It’s best when the fish are running. In Spain their peak falls de Virgen a Virgen (“from Virgin to Virgin”), that is, between the feast days of Carmen (July 16) and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven (August 15). I prefer small sardines, about 4 inches long and weighing a little under 1 ounce each. I leave them whole, pick them off the rice, and eat them with my fingers. This dish is started on the stove top. When the rice is half cooked, the sardines are laid on top decoratively like spokes of a wheel, and the cazuela is slid into the oven for 10 minutes.

Sardines: While smaller sardines weighing around 1 ounce each are laid whole on the rice, larger sardines should be cleaned and butterflied open, with the heads and spines removed. Or you can fillet them. The cooking time remains the same.

Saffron Threads Preparation: Saffron is a defining element of paella. It brings its characteristic warm and fresh aroma, and, significantly, tints the rice a delicate golden color. It is the world’s most expensive spice. Cultivation is a delicate process, collecting is difficult, and it takes some 70,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron. Introduced into Spain around A.D. 900 by Arab traders, it was cultivated in Spain by A.D. 960. (The Spanish word for saffron, azafrán, comes from the Arabic za’faran.) Saffron is largely grown in the central La Mancha region, whose extreme conditions-hot summers, cold winters-are ideal for giving strength to the color and pungency to the aroma. La Mancha is a registered denominación de origen; look for the “D.O. Azafrán de la Mancha” label. Buy only threads and not powder, which may have been adulterated.

To draw out saffron’s full culinary potential, the threads need to be slightly toasted and crumbled before they are added to a rice dish. Toast the threads in a small dry skillet over low heat for a few minutes until they turn a shade darker. Remove them immediately, and then either crumble them in a small piece of paper or pound them in a mortar. If using a mortar, be sure to swirl a bit of water around inside after pounding to get every last bit of saffron dust.

Most restaurants, and many home cooks, use a powdered colorante (usually a mix of cornstarch, salt, and yellow dye) to give their paella the dish’s characteristic golden color. Though eschewed by purists, colorante does not carry a heavy stigma in Spain and its use is not generally looked down upon around most tables. Colorante gives the rice an artificially bright yellow tone. Do not try to make a paella yellower by simply adding more saffron. Too much saffron can give the rice a bitter, almost medicinal flavor. Two pinches of good-quality threads-20 to 30 total-is enough for a paella for 6.

To Grate Tomatoes:. Simply cut the tomato in half crosswise, and run a finger through the seed cavity, scraping most of the seeds out. Then, cupping the tomato in your hand, slowly grate on a box grater. The skin will gradually peel back as the flesh is grated away, leaving only a flattened skin in your palm. (Discard the skin.) This technique doesn’t waste precious pulp. In winter when good, flavorful fresh tomatoes are hard to find, canned whole tomatoes can be used. Strain them, reserving the liquid (to add later to the cooking sofrito), and finely chop.

Serves6

Cooking Methodbaking

CostInexpensive

Moderate

Total Timeunder 1 hour

One Pot MealYes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, lactose-free, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free

Mealdinner

Moodfestive

Taste and Texturegarlicky, savory

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3 ripe medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped or coarsely grated (see Notes)
  • Salt
  • ½ teaspoon sweet pimenton
  • 2 pinches saffron threads (about 20), lightly toasted and ground (see Notes)
  • 6½ cups Fish Stock
  • 3 cups short or medium grain rice
  • ¾ cup fresh or thawed frozen peas
  • 12 to 18 fresh sardines (about 1 to 1½ pounds total, see Notes)

Instructions

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