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.
- 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)
- 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)
Make the sofrito. In a large cazuela or medium Dutch oven or another heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and nearly translucent, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add the garlic, tomatoes, and 2 pinches of salt and cook, stirring from time to time, until the tomato has darkened to a deeper shade of red and the sofrito is pasty, 10 to 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
When the sofrito is ready, sprinkle in the pimentón and saffron, letting the flavors meld for a few seconds while stirring constantly.
Add the stock, increase the heat, and bring to a boil. Add the rice and peas. With a wooden spoon, probe the pan to make sure the rice is evenly distributed. Check for salt, adjusting the seasoning as needed.
Cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, gently stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.
Working quickly, lay the sardines across the top of the rice like spokes on a wheel, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and place in the hot oven.
Bake until most of the liquid is absorbed (it doesn’t need to be dry), the rice is al punto, with just a bite to it, and the eyes of the sardines are cloudy, about 10 minutes.
Remove the cazuela from the oven and immediately transfer the food to plates, letting the rice rest for a few minutes before serving.
Nutritional information includes 1/2 teaspoon of added salt, but does not include Fish Stock. For nutritional information on Fish Stock, please follow the link above.