Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy
SERVES 4 TO 6 AS A FIRST COURSE
Fregola or fregula is a traditional grano duro (hard wheat flour) pasta from Sardinia that resembles couscous. I was introduced to it by my good friends Mario and Giulia Cocco, who make their summer home in Cagliari, one of the four provinces of the island. Mario, who was born in Sardinia, is fiercely proud of his heritage and this dish has been on his family's table for generations.
Originally made by hand, and traditionally the work of every bride-to-be, fregola is now commercially made and sold as fregola grossa (large grains) and fregola media (medium grains).
Fregola is most frequently served with arselle, the sweet clams of Sardinia. Fregola is not cooked the conventional way in boiling water but added raw to a soffrito (sauté) of olive oil, garlic, and parsley, and cooked slowly with the addition of hot broth and clam juice.
According to Mario, this is the best method of cooking and allows the fregola to absorb all the flavors of the ingredients. As with any pasta, fregola should be cooked al dente. It is delicious as a first course, a hearty lunch, and equally welcome as leftovers. Fregola is available in Italian specialty stores or by mail order.
2 pounds tiny fresh clams, rinsed well
¼ cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh minced Italian parsley
1 cup fregola (8 ounces)
1 pound whole peeled plum tomatoes
3½ cups hot chicken or beef broth (homemade or canned)
2 whole dried tomatoes in olive oil, cut into pieces
Fine sea salt to taste
Coarsely ground black pepper to taste
Place the clams and the water in a medium size sauté pan. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat until the shells open. Remove the clams with a slotted spoon to a dish and set aside until cool enough to handle. Discard any that do not open. Strain the cooking liquid through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a bowl, measure out ½ cup, and set aside. Shuck all but five of the clams, chop them coarsely, and set aside.
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the garlic and 2 tablespoons of the parsley. Cook, stirring often, until the garlic is deep golden brown (this will give added flavor to the fregola). Add the fregola to the pan and stir to coat the grains well with the olive oil. Add the tomatoes and chop them coarsely with a wooden spoon as you stir.
Gradually stir in 3 cups of the broth and the reserved clam juice, allowing the fregola to absorb the liquid as it cooks. The fregola should plump up to double their size and be firm to the bite but cooked through. Add additional broth only if the fregola are still too firm. The fregola should take 20 to 25 minutes to cook.
Two or three minutes before the fregola is ready, add the dried tomatoes and the clams. Stir to blend the ingredients well. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the fregola to a serving bowl or deep platter. Garnish with the reserved clams and sprinkle the remaining parsley over the top. Serve immediately.