To me, nothing defines Moroccan cooking more than the classical preparation of fish. The vibrant red, yellow, and green colors, the spicy aroma, and the delicate textures all come together in this perfect dish. Traditionally, the fish is assembled and marinated in the fridge overnight, but if you are short on time, you can easily go ahead and cook it straightaway.
I recommend serving this fish with my crispy rice cakes with saffron crust. This is a wonderful side dish to make year- round—crunchy, light, and flavorful. I cover the rice with a few paper towels as it cooks to absorb excess moisture, which helps to create a golden crust on the bottom of the rice.
Crispy Rice Cake with Saffron Crust
2 cups (14 oz/440 g) basmati rice, well rinsed
3 Tbsp corn oil or rice bran oil
4 saffron threads, crushed between your fingertips
1 heaping tsp sweet paprika
In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups (32 fl oz/1 l) water to a rapid boil over high heat. Stir in the rice and1 teaspoon salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for about 9 minutes. You don’t want the rice to be fully cooked or the water to be completely absorbed. It should be only halfway there. Spoon the rice into a fine-mesh sieve placed over a bowl and letit stand until all of the liquid has drained.
Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Pour in the oil and use a wooden spoon to swirl the saffron and paprika into the oil. When the oil starts to sizzle, carefully spoon in the rice, pressing it into the bottom of the pan to form a sort of “rice cake.” Reduce the heat to medium, place a few paper towels over the rice, and cover the pan. Cook until the rice cake is nicely browned and crisp, 15–20 minutes. Using a spatula,lift the cake occasionally to make sure the rice isn’t burning. When the cake is ready, uncover and let cool for a few minutes.
Remove the paper towels. Carefully invert a large plate over the top of the pan, invert the plate and pan together, and then lift off the pan. Serve right away. The rice cake can also be made up to one hour ahead and kept covered at room temperature.
Just before serving, reheat in a 300°F (150°C) oven.
For the paprika oil:
1⁄2 cup (13⁄4 oz/55 g) sweet paprika
2 cups (16 floz/500 ml) canola oil
For the saffron water:
1 Tbsp saffron threads
1 cup (8 floz/250 ml) boiling water
4 cloves garlic, quartered
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems reserved and left whole, leaves chopped
2 red bell peppers, seeded and finely diced
3 dried red chiles, such as guajillo, ancho, or pasilla
6 grouper or tilapia fillets, about 6 oz (185 g) each
1–2 preserved lemons, cut into small pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh cilantro for garnish
To make the paprika oil: In a glass jar combine the paprika and oil and shake until well blended. Set aside. This will serve as the base for your Moroccan cooking. Store in a dark pantry and always shake before using.
To make the saffron water: Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Place the saffron on a small piece of aluminum foil and fold over to secure the saffron inside. Toast in the oven for no more than 1 minute. Use your fingersto crumble the saffron into tiny pieces. Place in a small glass jar, pour in the boiling water, and shake until
well blended. This mixture will also come in handy for Moroccan cooking.
If you have time to marinate the fish: Pour 1 ⁄4 cup (2 floz/ 60 ml) of the paprika oil into a large sauté pan. Add the garlic, cilantro stems, bell peppers, and chiles. Place the grouper on top and add the preserved lemons. Pour 3 tablespoons of the saffron water evenly over the fish. Use your hands to rub the liquids into the fish.
Season with salt and pepper. If you have time, cover the pan and let the fish marinate in the fridge for up to 24 hours.
Remove the pan from the fridge, place over medium- high heat, and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, sprinkle the cilantro leaves over the fish, and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes longer. The dish should look bright and bubbly.
Serve right away.
If you have don’t have time to marinate the fish: Pour 1 ⁄4 cup (2 floz/60 ml) of the paprika oil into a large sauté pan. Add the garlic, cilantro stems, bell peppers, and chiles, place over medium-high heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers and chiles are softened, about 4 minutes.
Place the fish on top and add the preserved lemons. Pour 3 tablespoons of the saffron water evenly over the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Tilt the pan so that the liquids are evenly coating all of the fillets. Cover and cook over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, sprinkle the cilantro leaves over the fish, and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes longer. The dish should look bright and bubbly. Serve right away