durum wheat semolina, pasta known as fregola from Sardinia
Chef Stefano Agostini.
Chef Gabriele Paganelli.
Everyone has their favourite pasta and rice as the go-to ingredient in a busy kitchen. But — when was the last time you reached for fregola?
Sometimes called Sardinian couscous, it’s actually an ancient, unusual food ingredient native to the island of Sardinia – and it is becoming a favourite go-to for chefs across North America, partly as it’s an unusual type of pasta, and partly as it has an amazing ability to absorb flavours yet stands on its own merit.
Round, with irregular texture, fregola or fregula, as it’s known as (whose name would be comfortable as a Sesame Street character!) is a type of pasta made from semolina, and has a pleasing bite. Research shows it has similar characteristics to Israeli couscous, Middle Eastern moghrabieh and North African berkoukes and, on many occasions, it can be mistaken for a grain.
According to chef Efisio Farris in his Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey cookbook (Rizzoli), fregola came to Sardinia “from the North African cuisine of the Maghreb (and) it remains one of the few Moorish ingredients in our traditional cuisine.”
Hand-made, it’s typically 2–3mm in diameter in size, and it has a lovely, toasty, almost nutty flavour that blends well in a variety of dishes, both hot and cold. It’s particularly delicious in soups or to replace orzo, even rice. In fact, it has a long, slow cooking time, much like rice.
Fregola is easy to cook and is perfect as the base for a traditional Greek salad, as well as the pasta of choice for a soothing vegetable soup. Here’s a selection of recipes to try for yourself:
Fregula with Asparagus and Gorgonzola
Courtesy Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey
4 Tbsp. (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 medium bunch asparagus, thinly sliced
4 cups (1L) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups (500 mL) fregola
1/2 cup (125 mL) dry white wine, preferably Vermentino
1/2 cup (125 mL) Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped shallot and cook, stirring, until golden. Add asparagus and continue stirring about 3 minutes more. Add fregula to saucepan with asparagus and cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add wine and let cook until liquid has absorbed.
Add boiling chicken stock to fregula and cook, stirring constantly, until liquid is fully absorbed, about 10 minutes. Stir in Gorgonzola until well combined, then stir in remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Let mixture stand a few minutes before serving.
NOTE: If asparagus is not available, substitute 1 cup (250 mL) fresh or frozen peas.
Fregola with Mussels and Clams (Fregola con Cozze e Arselle)
“A famous Sardinian dish, it’s typically made with only clams but in this recipe I also included mussels,” says cooking instructor and chef Stefano Agostini of Cucinato.ca.
1-1/2 lb. (750g) EACH fresh clams and mussels
4 Tbsp. (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves, crushed, divided
1/2 cup (125 mL) dry white wine
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
2 cups (300g) fregola
1-1/2 cups (375 mL) canned or jarred tomato puree
Place clams and mussels under cold running water for 15 minutes, using your hands or a clean scrubbing brush to rub off any debris or beards from mussels. Drain and rinse again. Keep in cold water until ready to use.
Place 2 tablespoons of oil in a large fry pan with one clove of crushed. When garlic is golden, remove it and add mussels and clams to pan; pour in white wine and cover pan with lid. As soon as clams and mussels open (removing any who have not opened) remove them from the heat. Shell 3/4 of them and leave rest to decorate the dish. Strain cooking liquid through a fine sieve and reserve for later.
Place remaining oil in a large saucepan. Finely chop parsley and rest of garlic and add to oil, allowing to infuse oil for a few minutes at low heat. Stir in fregola, toast for two minutes, stirring often, then pour tomato puree and cooking juices from shellfish. Continue cooking fregola, adding water if needed (about 20/25 minutes).
Stir in shelled mussels and clams and serve fregola topped with the remaining clams and mussels in their shells.
Fregola Sarda with Wild Boar Sausage
“Inimitable, with an intense and rich flavour,” notes award-winning Chef Gabriele Paganelli of Toronto’s famed Speducci Mercatto, who created this recipe to partner fregola with his wild boar sausages. Paganelli is famous in Canada for producing award-winning, small-batch charcuterie. ( speducci.com @Speducci)
2 small shallots, minced
3 Tbsp. (45 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
8-oz. (240g) *wild boar sausage
1-2/3 cup (250g fregola
1/4 cup (60mL) white wine (Vermentino suggested)
4 cups (1L) vegetable broth
1/3 cup (75 mL) **grated sheep milk cheese (pecorino suggested)
In a large saucepan heat half of olive oil and saute shallots until caramelized. Remove casings from sausage and crumble into pan with shallots. Add fregola and let toast for a few minutes before adding white wine, stirring for a few minutes. Add broth and continue cooking for about 20 minutes, or until all liquid has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper and toss in cheese.
*If you can’t find wild boar sausage, substitute with sweet Italian sausage.
**substitute with grated Parmigiano.
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