Who is not fond of and enjoys those tiny pasta shapes such as Orzo, the small, grain shaped pasta that is truly wonderful in a Mushroom risoniotto (here), or the Acini di Pepe, perfect to use in soup recipes, the Ditalini (“Little Thimbles”) or the star-like Stelline or Pastine, a super tiny pasta that is perfect for children. Their utter cuteness and versatility are the reason why the small, pearl-shaped Fregola caught my attention at my favorite Italian market the other day. That and, of course, the wonderful packaging.
Fregola also called Fregola Sarda (meaning "from Sardinia") are made in the same way as couscous, the wheat (Semola di grano duro) dough is rubbed until it forms tiny beads. The Italian name Fregola comes from „fricare“, the Latin for „to rub“ – this is also where the English word „friction“ comes from. Fregola possess a texture somewhere between the fine, sandy grains of Couscous and Mograbia. As far as the flavor is concerned, there is a distinct toasty note to some brands, like the one I used, as the pasta beads have been lightly toasted (fregola tostata) as they dry.
Generally, you cook this Sardinian specialty pasta in deep, boiling water. Steaming it as you might its finer cousin would most definitely result in a rather stodgy mass. Cooked in water, sometimes stock, the Fregola will be chewily ready in 10 to 12 minutes – the point at which to add it to your veggies. The pasta beads will soak up the notes of garlic and they will plump up with a succulence unavailable in fine couscous. Alternatively, you can also opt to cook the pasta in a tomato sauce until done. But no tomatoes in sight today.
I opted for fresh broad beans (also referred to as fava beans in the US). These are sweet and delicious pod beans with a smooth creamy texture. They are at their best from the end of May through to mid-July, when the pods are pale green and soft and the beans are still small. So get them while you can and make this dish.
Sweet broad beans, double-podded, of course, caramelized fennel, spring onions, young garlic, loads of herbs and fregola are heaven on a plate.
Fregola Sarda with Caramelized Fennel, Broad Beans and flatleaf Parsley
- 250 grams fregola
- 1 kg broad beans in their pods – you will end up with about only 250 grams with their skins and pods removed
- 2 fennel bulbs (about medium sized), trimmed, though outer leaf removed and sliced thinly - keep the fennel fronds for garnish
- 2 whole spring onions, trimmed and sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
- Italian (flatleaf) parsley, a whole bunch, washed, dried and stems removed, chopped coarsely
- freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
- a good quality mild olive oil
- Pecorino Roman (optional)
- Prepare the fregola: put a large pot of deep water to a boil. Salt it generously, as you do for pasta. Always salt the water and let it come back to the boil again before adding your pasta. Add the fregola to the boiling water and simmer for about 10 minutes, testing regularly for doneness, until it is tender. Though it is up to you how much bite you like, I like mine to retain some bite – depending on the variety of fregola used, it can take a few minutes more to cook them to your liking. Drain thoroughly, tip into a bowl then drizzle a few drops of olive oil over it and toss to coat evenly. This will stop the beads sticking together as they cool.
- Prepare the broad beans: after you have removed the pods, blanch the broad beans in boiling, salted water for a couple of minutes and then drain. Cool. Remove the tough skins. Set aside.
- Prepare the fennel: heat the oil in a shallow pan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced fennel and salt well. Fry until caramelized and browned in spots. Then transfer the fennel to a paper-lined plate to drain off some of the oil.
- Prepare the spring onions and garlic: warm some more of the oil in the same shallow pan, add the sliced spring onions and garlic and fry them gently until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Now add the drained fregola to the pan, together with the caramelized fennel and drained broad beans, continue to fry gently until warmed through. Turn off the heat, add half of the parsley to the pan, season with salt and black pepper to taste, then stir briefly to let the parsley wilt ever so slightly.
- To serve, stir the other half of the parsley through the fregola, ladle the fregola into individual bowls or one large bowl and then scatter over some fennel fronds.
- Optional: if you feel the need to dress this dish with cheese, may I suggest a good Italian Pecorino Romano which will add some sharpness and saltiness to the dish.
While we are still in the midst of summer and enjoying the warm temperatures, I must admit that I am already looking forward to cooler weather when fregola will add substance to a bowl of soup. But for now, this recipe has become a foodie obsession of mine and the Fregola Sarda is my prime candidate for tossing with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes or roasted beetroot and a balsamic-type dressing. I believe I will use it for bolstering a summer garden with grilled courgettes and summer squash. Or cook it with a cornucopia of seafood in a rich sauce. It is so verstaile and can also be cooked like a risotto or simmered in stock. It is hearty, and it gets better as it sits by absorbing the liquid that you cook it in.
For a different staple on your plate try this amazing Sardinian pasta made from semolina (Semola di grano Duro). It pairs so very well with other Mediterranean flavors like the caramelized fennel and the broad beans in my recipe.
But I will tell you that you will probaly need to go to an Italian deli or specialist food outlet for Fregola Sarda, also referred to as "the sun-dried and toasted Sardinian couscous". Or you can easily order it online. While you can substitute other tiny pasta here, I wouldn’t substitute regular couscous for the Fregola, which is rather more like dense pasta peas than semolina grains, but you could use the larger Midde-Eastern or Israeli couscous instead, also called giant couscous. But it is definitely worth seeking out Fregola Sarda at least once. It might take a bit of an extra effort but it will be worth it and for me finding a treasured ingredient is part of the fun of cooking new dishes.