A relative of couscous finds a wider fan base

Fregola is added to a bubbling pan of squid for a spicy calamari with fregola recipe, in New York, Feb. 21, 2017. — Picture by Karsten Moran/The New York Times
Fregola is added to a bubbling pan of squid for a spicy calamari with fregola recipe, in New York, Feb. 21, 2017. — Picture by Karsten Moran/The New York Times

NEW YORK, March 8 — Fregola, or fregola sarda, as it is known in Sardinia, has been around for a long, long time, a culinary gift from nearby Tunisia.

A sturdy, spherical relative of couscous, it is hand-rolled from a mixture of semolina and water, then dried and toasted before it is ready to be steamed or simmered. Beautifully burnished and speckled, it has an alluring comfort-food appeal.

I admire fregola’s many guises. It can be served simply boiled and buttered, the better to show off its firm, satisfying, slightly chewy texture and its rustic, nutty flavor. Or fregola may replace rice for a juicy risottolike dish made with clams or other shellfish, with small amounts of broth added incrementally. Added to vegetable soups, cooked slowly along with the other ingredients, it provides body and rib-sticking sustenance. Many classic Sardinian recipes pair fregola with saucy fish stews or braised meats. Fregola salads, served at room temperature or slightly warm, are another delight.

Fregola has become an attractive ingredient for American cooks, especially among chefs. I quite like to cook it myself, and have for some time, but despite my fondness (and a certain amount of hands-on edible research), I wanted to know more, so I sent out a group email to a limited number of chefs and food lovers. I asked: Why do you like fregola? How do you like to cook it?

Paula Wolfert wrote back and told me to look at page 216 of her book Mediterranean Grains and Greens, published in 1998. “It’s all there,” she said. Aha! Sardinian fregola, Sicilian cuscusú, Israeli couscousou, Syrian and Jordanian mograbiah, Jordanian miftool, Tunisian mhammas and Greek and Turkish kuskus, she explained, are all versions of couscous, in various shapes and sizes, scattered about the Eastern Mediterranean.

New York chef Mason Lindahl makes “a luscious fregola salad with lemon, mint, parsley and shaved aged sheep’s milk cheese,” he said. Cookbook author Joan Nathan, who is a contributor to The New York Times, says she prepares fregola “like Jewish farfel, with fried onions and mushrooms.”

Jennifer Sherman of Chez Panisse describes fregola as “a delicious blank canvas, ready to be painted with bright spring-green peas, Italian parsley and arugula.” Gabriela Cámara, the chef of Cala in San Francisco, said, “I do love fregola and my mouth just waters at the thought of it dressed with pesto and pecorino.”

During a recent cold snap, I opted for fregola in a hearty, spicy, tomato-y calamari stew, an homage to frugal times when fregola was considered cheap and belly-filling, like potatoes. Since squid is the least expensive offering at the fishmonger, we had a stellar meal for less than US$20 (RM88.90).

Spicy calamari with fregola

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

2 pounds small to medium calamari, tubes and tentacles cleaned, cut into ½-inch pieces

Salt and pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped

4 small garlic cloves, minced

1 large onion, diced (about 1 ½ cups)

1/8 teaspoon crumbled saffron

½ cup dry white wine

1 cup diced canned tomato

¾ cup chicken broth or water

1 cup fregola sarda (add ½ cup for heartier appetites)

12 basil leaves

Pinch of dried oregano

1.  Spread the calamari on a baking sheet and pat dry as best you can with paper towels. Season generously with salt and pepper.

2.  Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, wide skillet over high heat. Add calamari and quickly stir-fry, cooking for only 1 minute, until puffed. Remove from pan with slotted spoon and set aside.

3.  Return pan to stove, reduce heat to medium-high and add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add crushed red pepper, anchovy and garlic and let sizzle, then add onions and stir well.

4.  Season onions generously and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened and faintly colored. Add saffron and wine and simmer for 1 minute, then add tomato and broth. Adjust heat so sauce simmers gently for about 10 minutes, until flavors are well mingled. Taste for salt and hot pepper.

5.  Meanwhile, bring 4 cups salted water to a boil. Add fregola and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

6.  Add par-cooked calamari to the sauce over high heat. Add basil leaves and stir well until everything is heated through and calamari are completely cooked, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and fold in cooked fregola. Sprinkle with oregano, add a drizzle of olive oil, if desired, and serve. — The New York Times

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