Several months ago, I walked into the Pasta Shop just as they began to serve samples of fregola sarda, otherwise known as Sardinian couscous. Like couscous, fregola are made when semolina flour and water are rubbed together, except fregola’s nuggets are a bit larger, and they get roasted after they’re dried. This results in a toasted and nutty flavored grain with a dense, chewy texture. The samples I tried were prepared with pecorino, parsley and pancetta. After purchasing a pound, I went home and immediately duplicated the recipe – it was delicious, satisfying and easy. So easy, I began to tweak it a bit each time I made it. I tried tossing in chiffonades of spinich and sorrel, I stirred in some preserved lemon peel and chopped some pimento into it. I did a little research online, and learned that it is traditionally prepared with saffron and served with seafood. Of course, I had to try a variation with saffron, and I tried it with shrimp and seared scallops. It was all very tasty, but tonight, I think I hit on the right combination.
I had been thinking about possible preparations of the petrale sole “catch of the day” I purchased earlier. Meuniere was a possibility, but just seemed too rich at the time. Besides, I was feeling lazy. And I had to think of some way to incorporate the bulb of fennel. For some reason, I thought of bourride and laying the fish on top of the grains just before they were done and allowing it to finish together. Why not? I shrugged. The easiest recipes often allow the most play. The fennel was a little trickier. I though about making confit again, but it just seemed too buttery. In the end, I just caramelized julienned strips in a separate pan, but I was sure to use the fronds in the fregola’s cooking liquid.
You can find fregola sarda at gourmet food shops and and specialty Italian shops. A somewhat similar (and easier to find) grain is orzo.
Fregola Sarda with Caramelized Fennel and Sole (serves 4)
1/2 lb of Fregola Sarda
1/2 large chopped onion
1 minced clove of garlic
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups stock (fish, vegetable, chicken or turkey)
Minced preserved lemon peel from 1/4 of a lemon (recipe follows)
2 or 3 pinches of saffron
1 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
2 lbs sole, sand dabs or any other white flatfish
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed (reserving the fronds), cored and sliced lengthwise into 1/8 inch julienne strips
salt and pepper
In a medium pot over medium heat, sweat the onions in a tablespoon olive oil, then add the garlic and saute for another ten minutes. Add the fregola sarda and stir to ensure that the oil is evenly distributed. Add the saffron, the preserved lemon peel and the wine and turn the heat to high until the pot comes to a boil Continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes, long enough to evaporate the alcohol, then add the stock and a few of the (whole) fennel leaf fronds. Season with salt. Bring the pot to a simmer, lower the heat to medium low, and cover for about ten minutes. Stir it a few times, just to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom.
Meanwhile, in a large, heavy saute pan (I used cast iron), heat a quarter cup of olive oil then add the fennel slices and cook for 8-10 minutes, turning the pieces over if they start becoming too brown. Once they are done, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Season the fish filets with salt and pepper, and once the ten minutes is up for the fregola pot, uncover and remove the fennel fronds. Stir the fregola, and make sure it is not too dry. Carefully lay the filets on top of the fregola (it should be almost al dente at this point) in a single layer, cover it and keep it on low for another 5-6 minutes. The fish should be done, but if not, cover again, and check after another two minutes. Once it is done, carefully remove it from the pot with a wide spatula and set aside. Stir the parsley into the fregola, adjust the seasonings and ladle a serving onto a plate or bowl. Place some of the caramelied fennel over the fregola, then the fish on top. Garnish with some of the trimmed fennel fronds, and serve with wedges of fresh lemon.
A few notes:
I didn’t have pancetta (okay, I did have pancetta but it took a wrong turn several weeks back), which is normally diced and sauteed just before adding the onions. I nearly used some duck prosciutto instead, but that just seemed… wrong. I decided that since sole is a relatively delicate fish, and that since fennel and saffron are pretty strong flavors, I could forgo the pancetta. I did want some kind of complex, salty flavoring, which is where the preserved lemon peel came it. It also fit in the Mediterranean/Morrocon mood of this dish. But I’m sure pancetta would be good in this dish as well.
Also, pecorino cheese is often added to the fregola along with the parsley, but I decided to abide by the Italian “no fish with cheese” rule. But I won’t tell if you break it.
I make my own preserved lemons. I’ve never seem them in stores, but then again, I’ve never looked because its so easy to make! Get enough lemons to fit into whatever glass jar you’re going to use to store them and a box of pickling salt. Make sure the lemons are unwaxed. Wash and dry the lemons, then slice the tops and bottoms off. Quarter them lengthwise, but not quite all the way through to the bottom. Pour about a 1-2 inch layer of salt in a clean jar. Open the lemons slightly and pour in some salt, then “close” them. Nestle a single layer of “salted” lemons upright in the jar. Pour more salt over the lemons in the jar, making sure to get all the crevices and spaces in between, leaving an inch on top of the first layer. Repeat with another layer of lemons, until the jar is filled. Seal it and store it in a cool, dry place for about a month. Whenever you need some, remove a wedge from the jar, scrape off the flesh and pith and rinse the peel, then cut it up however you like. A little goes a long way.