Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and last night on the eve of today’s feast, in Barcelona people partied until the wee hours celebrating the birth of Christ’s cousin and forerunner. Every year I host my own commemoration of this Catalan custom at the manse, transferring it to the nearest Saturday night in order to allow time to recover the next day of course, though with certain modifications. I have to cap the guest list very strictly to prevent overcrowding, so no long, outdoor communal dining tables like you see in different Barcelona neighborhoods on the Night of St. John. Moreover, I imagine the District of Columbia would have a problem if I tried to make a bonfire in my back yard, so we just stick to sparklers.
One of the dishes I made for the feast is called arròs negre, “black rice”. It once known as “paella de pobre” since it was made with just a few, very inexpensive ingredients by fishermen. Since after posting the photograph below on social media several people asked for the recipe, I am happy to share it with you.
I realize the picture may appear ghastly. As my youngest brother commented, it looks like an overhead shot of the armies of Mordor. However this is a dish that is both impressive to look at and to eat. The color is extraordinary, while the taste and aroma are not at all “fishy”, as you might expect. Rather, it is a more delicate, subtle hint of the seaside, something simultaneously sweet and briny, but very faintly so.
Fortunately, this is a wonderfully simple dish to make, and you can always put in your own variations. Personally, I like to keep this one plain, since as with all Iberian rice dishes, the rice is the most important part. If you concentrate on making the rice flavorful, the additions are not as important.
4 cups of seafood stock
2 cups of short-grain Bomba rice
2-3 medium to large-sized squid, cleaned and separated into tubes and tentacles
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (not Hungarian)
1 teaspoon of salt
6 sachets of cuttlefish ink
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a 15-inch paellera, heat the seafoood stock and squid tentacles on medium-high until the liquid comes to a boil.
3. Once the broth is boiling, use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove the squid tentacles from the stock. Discard.
4. Pour in the Bomba rice, smoked Spanish paprika, and the contents of the 6 sachets of cuttlefish ink. Be careful when opening the ink sachets as the contents will stain your clothes and hands.
5. Stir everything together well to combine evenly, then stop stirring completely. From this point you will not stir or touch the rice again.
6. Continue cooking, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, cut the 2-3 squid tubes into rings, about the width of your finger.
8. Scatter the squid rings across the surface of the rice, and push them in slightly using the back of a spoon.
9. Now turn off the stove top, and cover the top of the paellera with foil.
10. Carefully place the paellera in the center rack of your oven for about 8-10 minutes. You want to check toward the end to make sure all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be cooked, but still have a bit of a bite to it, not be soft and mushy. If you need to add more liquid, add a 1/4 cup of water or seafood stock. If the rice from the bottom of the pan is a little bit burnt, even better.
11. Remove the paellera from the oven, and allow to sit, covered, on top of the stove for about ten minutes to rest. When you’re ready to serve, squeeze some lemon juice around the surface, or serve with lemon wedges for your guests to put on themselves.