This recipe for saffron cod and orzo with guanciale chili oil is just divine. If you need a fancy dinner recipe that won’t totally break the bank, this is what you want to make. It’s also a great recipe for frozen cod that can be modified in so many ways. This post will also give you my method for how to thaw frozen cod, so you can whip up a gorgeous fish dinner any day of the week.
I splurged and bought some saffron the other week, and it’s just been sitting there on my counter staring at me ever since. I’ve also kept my freezer stocked with frozen cod, and I kept thinking about how much I wanted to do a fancy saffron cod dinner recipe. Originally, I was imagining poaching the saffron cod with potatoes, similar to my fish stew recipe.
I was hit with inspiration and thought how much fun crispy, frizzly leeks would be with golden cod. Folks on my Instagram stories voted for orzo instead of potatoes, and that’s how I got from my original idea to the finished plate.
This recipe does require some prep. I recommend it for a weekend night. Before I get into the details, I’ll give you a breakdown of what you’ll need to make this recipe.
The dish components:
- Guanciale chili oil: Guanciale is an Italian cured pork made from pig jowl or cheeks. Cheeks and jowl should not be confused as they aren’t completely interchangeable. The cheeks are, well, the cheeks. The jowl is the area that surrounds the face and has a much higher fat content. You’re likely most familiar with it because it’s a key ingredient in the Roman pasta dish carbonara. The name is derived from the Italian word for cheek, “guancia”. While this guanciale chili oil isn’t the first chili oil to have meat as an ingredient (like this unobtainable beef Lao Gan Ma), it is a delicious condiment that I want to drizzle on all the pasta.
- Saffron cod and orzo: The star of the show! Even if you forego the chili oil and frizzled leeks, this will still be a wonderfully satisfying dish that comes together in a flash. The dish builds up from a foundation of sautéed fennel, shallot, and garlic to tender orzo and perfectly poached cod on top. It finishes with a simple saffron ‘tea’, lemon juice, and minced parsley.
- Frizzled leeks: Simple to cook but laborious to prepare. First, slice one leek very thinly. Next, fry it very quickly in hot oil. It results in the loveliest, crispy aromatic topping.
Start with prep:
Before you begin anything, gather your ingredients. I’ll talk about the frizzled leeks in the next section, but first, focus on getting everything together.
Cod: This meal is such a good recipe for frozen cod. I keep my freezer stocked with pre-portioned frozen cod because it’s great for quick dinners. If you’re worried about how to thaw frozen cod, worry not…it’s super easy! Below are three options that you can use for most frozen cod recipes:
- Refrigerate: This is the safest method to thaw frozen cod. The night before, just pop it in the refrigerator. Leave the fish in whatever wrapping it came in and refrigerate for 8–13 hours. I recommend keeping it on a plate as it does get a little leaky as it thaws.
- Water: This is my method of choice. The basic gist is keeping the frozen fish submerged in cool water until it’s unthawed. You need water that’s a little cooler than room temperature. Slightly cool water allows the fish to unthaw quickly without the risk of bacteria developing. Simply place the frozen fish (still in its packaging) in a big bowl of water and fill it with cool water. It should be completely submerged, so you may need to place a bowl on top of it to keep the fish underwater. Change the water every 20 minutes until the fish is unthawed. Most importantly, do NOT remove the packaging when unthawing in this method. If you place the fish directly in the water without the packaging, it’ll become waterlogged (trust me, I know…).
- Cook from frozen: Cod is great because you can cook it from frozen, but you’ll need to increase the cooking time a bit. I don’t recommend that for this recipe because the orzo has a hard and fast start and end time for cooking! Use the steps above to thaw frozen cod instead.
The other ingredients:
Guanciale: If you can’t find guanciale, pancetta or even bacon will work well. Just make sure it’s small-diced.
Pasta: This recipe uses orzo, though you could use pearl couscous without needing to modify the recipe. Orzo is perfect because of its relatively quick cooking time.
Saffron: If you don’t have saffron, you can omit it. Make sure you crush it lightly before steeping it in warm water.
The aromatics: This recipe uses fennel, shallots, and garlic. For the fennel, be sure to use the whole thing! Slice the bulb and slice up those stalks. They work perfectly in the orzo.
The frizzled leek:
The leek is its own beast, and I strongly recommend prepping it before you start cooking!
- First, start by trimming off the dark green parts and the root end of the leek. Remove any tough outer layers and give the leek a good rinse.
- Next, cut the leek in half. Fear not if you still see dirt.
- Finally, thinly slice both halves into ⅛-inch wide slivers. You may need to separate some of the layers of the leek and slice each layer separately.
- If you do find bits of dirt, place all the leek slivers in a sieve and rinse again once more to remove any stubborn specks of dirt. Be sure to pat them dry afterward!
- While the saffron cod simmers, you’ll fry up the leeks in oil in small batches. They only take about 20 seconds to crisp up!
Make the guanciale chili oil:
I may be biased, but I think–if you have the time to make it–this saffron cod with orzo recipe is simply not complete without the guanciale chili oil. The chili oil is SO easy to make and really elevates this fancy dinner recipe. Here’s how:
- Fry the guanciale until browned. You want all the fat to render out, and the guanciale should get nice and crispy.
- Add finely diced shallot, minced garlic, and crushed red pepper and sauté until softened.
- Transfer everything to a bowl–including most of the rendered fat–and stir in extra virgin olive oil, chili oil, and a nip of maple syrup. Taste and add salt.
That’s it! Transfer it to a jar or airtight container, and it’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days!
How to make this saffron cod and orzo recipe:
Now, we can bring everything together. Below is the bird’s eye view of the order of steps in order for this fancy dinner recipe to be a success:
- Step 1: Prep, prep, prep! Get all the aromatics ready to go and get that leek sliced up. Get your saffron steeping in a bit of hot water and set it aside.
- Step 2: Make your guanciale chili oil. Fry the guanciale, add the shallot, garlic, and pepper flakes, and remove everything except a tablespoon of fat from the pot. Pour chili oil, extra virgin olive oil, and maple syrup over the guanciale mixture and mix, mix, mix.
- Step 3: Make the saffron cod and orzo. Refer to the beginning of this post for how to thaw your frozen cod. Start with the fennel and shallot, move on to the garlic, add the orzo, and then pour in water. Once it’s boiling, throw the cod on top, reduce the heat, and stir in the saffron tea. Cover, and simmer for around 15 minutes. Once the cod is opaque, add some lemon juice and fresh minced parsley.
- Step 4: Frizzle the leeks! While the cod simmers, fry up those leeks.
- Step 4: Plate it up! Spoon the cooked orzo into shallow bowls and place a piece of saffron cod on top. Add a little pinch of frizzled leeks next to the cod and finish with a drizzle of guanciale chili oil.
I hope you enjoyed this saffron cod and orzo recipe as much as we did. It really makes for the perfect weekend fancy dinner recipe. It’s also a perfect recipe for frozen cod if you’re like me and you keep it stockpiled in your freezer! If you enjoyed the recipe, please let me know in the comments!
Saffron Cod and Orzo with Guanciale Chili Oil
- Large pot
- Small pot
- Sieve if needed
- 1 leek, white and light green parts only, scrubbed and rinsed
- Vegetable oil
Guanciale chili oil:
Saffron cod and orzo:
- Pinch of saffron, lightly crushed
- 2 tablespoons hot water
- 6 4- ounce portions of cod
- 1 fennel bulb with stalks; bulb cored and thinly sliced, stalks trimmed and thinly sliced into rounds, fronds reserved for garnish
- 1 shallot, peeled and sliced lengthwise into thin wedges
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 16 ounces orzo
- 5½ cups water or vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lemon, juiced
- ¼ cup loosely packed parsley, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prep the leek:
- Before beginning, prepare the leek as it takes the most time. Halve the leek lengthwise and thinly slice both halves into ⅛-inch wide slivers. You may need to separate some of the layers of the leek and slice each layer separately. If you find bits of dirt deep within the leek, don’t fret. You can place all the leek slivers in a sieve and rinse again to remove any stubborn specks of dirt.
- Transfer the sliced leek to a paper towel-lined plate and pat dry to remove excess water.
Steep the saffron:
- Place the crushed saffron in a small bowl and cover it with 2 tablespoons of hot water. Set aside.
Prepare the guanciale chili oil:
- Place the guanciale in a large pot (you’ll use this pot later for the orzo and cod!) and turn the heat to medium. Cook, occasionally turning, for 8–10 minutes until the fat renders and the guanciale becomes crispy.
- Add the shallot, garlic, and crushed red pepper and cook for 3 minutes, turning often and adjusting the heat to prevent the garlic from browning. Once the shallot softens, and the garlic takes on a very light golden color, spoon the mixture into a bowl. Scoop out all but a tablespoon of the fat from the pot and add it to the bowl of guanciale.
- Pour the extra virgin olive oil, chili oil, and maple syrup over the guanciale. Stir vigorously to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your preference. Add more maple syrup, chili oil, or crushed red pepper, depending on your preferences.
- The guanciale oil will keep in an airtight jar for up to 5 days.
Prepare the saffron cod and orzo:
- Pat the cod dry and season all over with salt and pepper.
- Return the pot of remaining guanciale fat to medium heat. Add the sliced fennel bulb and stalks along with the sliced shallot. Season with salt and cook for 5–6 minutes until the fennel softens.
- Add the garlic and cook for 1–2 minutes until just fragrant.
- Melt the butter into the pot and add the orzo. Stir to coat and cook for 1–2 minutes until it begins to toast lightly. Season with salt.
- Pour in the water or broth and boil for 2–3 minutes. Stir often to lift any orzo that may have stuck to the bottom.
- Reduce heat to low and arrange the cod on top. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil. Drizzle the steeped saffron mixture, ensuring that each piece of cod gets some saffron water.
- Cover and simmer over low heat for 12–15 minutes or until the cod is opaque and the orzo is tender.
Frizzle the leek:
- Note: Use a saucepan that has somewhat high sides. Generally, you want a saucepan at least 6–8 inches deep. This is because when you add the leeks to the hot oil, the oil will foam vigorously, and you do NOT want it pouring over the edges.
- As the cod simmers, make the leeks. In a saucepan, pour in 2 inches of vegetable oil. Turn the heat to medium-high. Break off a piece of leek and add it to the pot; if it bubbles rapidly, it’s ready to fry.
- Add a handful of the leeks to the oil in small batches. Stir occasionally and fry for 15–20 seconds until golden brown. Remove and–using tongs–transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Continue until all the leeks are fried. Pat any excess oil off from the tops of the leeks with a paper towel and season with flaky sea salt. Set aside.
- Spoon the cooked orzo into shallow bowls and place a piece of cod on top. Arrange the frizzled leeks next to the cod and drizzle with the guanciale chili oil. Sprinkle a few bits of fennel fronds on top if you remember (unlike me…). Enjoy!