Mama Rajka's Fish with Rice
"Pirinač uvek ide dobro uz ribu. Ali nisam htela da kuvam dva jela posebno, tako da sam ovo smislila. Ako pratite recept porinač će imati ukus mora."
Mama Rajka (2022)
A little while ago I was introduced by my brother's girlfriend to her Serbian friend Sofija. She met us in the farmers' market so the conversation over lunch afterwards in the local pub inevitably centred around food - in particular the food of Serbia. Sofija gave me a list of classic Serbian dishes amongst which none featured seafood, but she did reveal that her mother had a particularly good recipe for fish with rice and her mother has kindly shared it.
The recipe arrived in its original form written in Serbian and I couldn't help but point out to Sofija that not since my return from Shanghai had I come across anything less intelligible. Thankfully Sofija translated it for me and I must say I'm grateful she did - this dish is sensational! My father would love it.
At the beginning of the recipe Mama Rajka advises that any sea fish can be used and indeed that a variety of fish can be used in the one dish. With a bit of navigation through the Latin names of the fish she suggested it turns out her regular choices include mackerel, gilthead bream and scorpion fish (or rascasse as it is known in French, one of the classic fish in a Bouillabaisse). With the Dorset line-caught black bream very much in season now my choice was straightforward but, having tried the dish a couple of times, I would definitely consider mackerel, red mullet, sea bass and gurnard at the very least. That said, at £10/kg small, one-person (300-350g) black bream are a super option at this time of year.
To be clear, this is not a traditional Serbian dish. It is a dish created by a (clearly-accomplished) Serbian home cook. Notwithstanding, I'm always intrigued as to how geography and history play their part in influencing the present-day cooks in different parts the world. In this case I couldn't help contemplating the possible connections between this recipe and a dish like "Sayadieh" from the Middle East - very similar ideas but rather different spicings.
It is pure coincidence that two of my last three posts should be for dishes of seafood with rice. But as Mama Rajka says (quote above translated): “Rice always pairs well with fish. But I didn’t want to prepare two dishes separately so I came up with this. If done well the rice should have a flavour of the sea.” Couldn't agree more. I do hope I've done Mama Rajka proud!
Before I received the recipe I researched the other dishes that Sofija had told me about. All of them employed a seasoning called Vegeta so I was not surprised one bit that it featured on Mama Rajka's recipe too. Vegeta is a powdered blend of dried vegetables and spices widely used in the cuisine of eastern Europe. It is quite readily available and inexpensive, but Mama Rajka assured in her recipe that in its absence a crumbled stock cube could be substituted. With the ingredients of Vegeta to hand I would opt for a low-salt vegetable stock cube were it not available.
For the bone-shy, I don't see any reason why thick fillets of fish could not replace the whole fish. Of course the added flavour and moisture from the bones would be lost but not so much as to deter from making the dish. The timings would change, however: I would advise adding a minute or two for the initial cooking of the rice and reducing the oven time to perhaps only 10-15 minutes. If cooking both whole fish and some fillets, don't adjust the procedure for the rice, just add the fillets 10-15 minutes from the end.
On that note, cooking whole fish in the oven invariably presents the challenge of knowing when it is done. If a meat thermometer is to hand then the target is an internal temperature (at the centre of the thickest part of the fish) of 60°C. Otherwise, using a small sharp knife, check that the thickest part of the flesh just comes away from the bone to confirm the fish is cooked.
This dish is most enjoyable eaten just on its own, but for a vegetable accompaniment I cannot think of anything more perfect than a simple fresh salad.
Mama Rajka's Fish with Rice
Ingredients (Serves 2)
2 x 300-350g whole black bream, gutted and scaled (for alternative fish see recipe intro)
2 small sprigs of rosemary
2 bay leaves, ideally fresh ones
125g basmati rice
1 small carrot (60-70g), peeled and finely diced
¼ tsp turmeric
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the marinade:
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1½ tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
½ tsp dried oregano
½ tbsp Vegeta stock powder (or half a vegetable stock cube, see recipe intro)
60ml white wine
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Wash the rice well and soak it in several changes of cold water for an hour or longer. Drain well.
Meanwhile mix together all the ingredients for the marinade ensuring to season well with a good few grinds of black pepper.
Make a few slashes on both sides of the two fish then place a rosemary sprig and a bay leaf in the cavities. Stuff the cavities with as much of the marinade as they will take then lay the fish on top of a couple of spoonfuls of the marinade in a large baking dish and spoon over the remaining marinade. Cover the dish and leave the fish to marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight in the fridge, turning and redistributing the marinade halfway through. Make sure the fish is at room temperature before cooking.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, add the washed and drained rice and the diced carrot along with the ¼ tsp turmeric. Bring back to the boil and simmer for 5 mins then drain well through a sieve. Meanwhile heat the oven to 200°C.
Distribute the rice around the fish in the baking tray, stirring the marinade lying in the dish into the rice. Season with more salt and pepper, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, then cover the dish tightly with foil (and/or with a tight-fitting lid) and place in the oven. Bake for 30 mins then remove from the oven and check if the fish is cooked (two fish of 300g should be cooked by then). If necessary return the fish to the oven for a further 5-10 mins until ready. Serve straight away.
"Sayadieh", Bute Street Seafoodie