I was re-arranging my pantry recently and found a package of Sardinian fregola that I had purchased at Altomonte’s Italian market (https://altomontes.com/) a few years back. I had visited Sardinia back in 2008 and returned home with a few treasured recipes that have become family favorites. My mouth instantly watered (ho l’acquolina in bocca! – love that phrase in Italian) thinking about the dish that I typically make with this Sardinian speciality and it was game on for dinner.
My trip to Sardinia was a special one for me. I had come to the island as part of my quest to visit as many of the Italian islands as I could. (I still have many more to go!) The island itself was breathtaking… from the hues of blue that were the sea to the interior mountains covered with sheep to my favorite town that was Bosa on the western edge, where the water was the bluest of blues, where the air smelled of salt and brine. This little town with a river running through it, rose up and up from the sea, its homes brightly colored, the streets wavy and uneven from the cobblestones. You could feel the souls of centuries past as you walked through the streets of the old village. I still to this day remember that feeling as I walked up to the fortress at the top.
On one bright sunny day, I stumbled across a little restaurant set right on the sand at the sea. In front of me was a dish made from the smallest, most tender little clams, which I have come to learn are called arselle. The broth was the deepest red, spiked with saffron and the toasty fregola soaked up all the wonderful flavors as it swam in this heavenly combination.
Sardinia’s invaders and settlers have heavily influenced Sardinian distinctive cuisine. Given Sardinia’s strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea, the constant wave of invaders has left the cuisine of the island heavily influenced by nearby Italy but also by the far away shores of southern Europe and Africa. Sardinian fregola is a great example of this, as it closely resembles couscous, although the little balls are larger than typical couscous. The pasta is also toasted, giving any dish from which it is made a wonderfully nutty flavor.
Fregola has also been gaining in popularity in this country and is much easier to find than in years past. This dish is super simple but the taste is divine. The clams infuse the saffron-laced broth with a briny flavor that balances beautifully with the nutty taste of the fregola. If you can find yourself a bag of this wonderful pasta, do not hesitate for a second. (You, of course, can find it easily on line these days.) You will not be disappointed!
Sardinian Fregola with Clams
This Sardinian speciality turns into a tasty Italian meal with the addition of briny clams and infused with a saffron-laced broth.
- 4 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Healthy pinch of saffron
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- About 2 cups diced tomato (either canned or fresh plum tomatoes)
- Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups clam stock (other stock may be substituted)
- 2 cups water plus additional if needed
- 2 cups fregola
Rinse and scrub the clams. Discard any clams with broken shells. Purge the clams of sand by covering the clams in a large bowl with salt water. (You want the taste of the water to be similar to seawater.) Allow the clams to purge for about an hour. Drain the clams, being careful not to pour the grit back over the clams.
In a large wide skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and add in the clams. Cover tightly and shake the pan until the clams start to open. As they open, remove the clams to a bowl. Discard any clams that have not opened. Turn off the heat. Strain the liquid produced from the clams. Add the saffron to the liquid and allow to bloom while you prepare the rest of the dish. Set the clams and the liquid aside.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large heavy pot. Add the minced garlic and cook over moderately high heat for approximately 30 seconds. Add the white wine and simmer for few minutes. Add in the diced tomatoes and a pinch of hot pepper flakes. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook until the tomatoes soften (abut 10 minutes). Add in the reserved clam juice and parsley and simmer for approximately 5 minutes. Taste the broth and adjust seasonings. (As clams are usually very salty, I find I typically only need to add pepper.)
Add in the stock and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add in the fregola. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fregola is tender to the bite (about 15 minutes). If the mixture becomes too thick, add more water to thin.
Put the clams back into the wonderful broth to reheat for a few minutes and then you are ready to serve! Sprinkle with additional chopped parsley and serve immediately with freshly warmed toasted bread.