Fregola is a fabulous pasta from the Southern parts of Sardinia. These little pasta pearls are reminiscent of Israeli Couscous, and North African berkoukes (also known as Mograbiah). It is likely that fregola originated from the Northern parts of Africa or the Middle East. Israeli couscous or berkoukes would be a good alternative in this dish if you can’t find fregola.
The name fregola is derived from the Italian verb “fregare” which means “to rub”. Indeed, what’s particularly special about this pasta, is that it’s made from a water and semolina paste which is rolled by hand into tiny little beads, dried and then toasted in the oven. This creates a unique nutty taste and the trademark slightly chewy texture.
Due to their stumpy shape, beads of fregola are not great at holding onto sauces (so definitely not the pasta of choice for a ragú or carbonara). Instead, fregola is often used in brothy or risotto-style preparations. Perfect in salads too.
Here the classic partnership of fregola with clams and tomatoes is lifted to new heights by the addition of Nduja, a spicy spreadable sausage from Calabria. The Nduja mysteriously melts into the light tomato sauce, adding heat and depth of flavour.
Quite a few supermarkets and Italian delicatessen stock Nduja these days (Brindisa and Natoora are good sources in the UK). Else try online. If you can’t find Nduja, you can use a spicy or smokey chorizo, cut into small dice. Use a cooking chorizo if you can though, as it releases its spicy oils more readily than the dried variety.
You can replace the clams with mussels or prawns. Or you can turn this into a delicious vegetarian and vegan dish by leaving the seafood out altogether and replacing it with extra roasted veg such as peppers or fennel. Use veggie stock and fresh chilli or chilli flakes instead of nduja or chorizo in that case. Obviously.
Nduja Fregola with Courgette, Clams and Artichokes (serves 2 DF RSF)
150 gr fregola
500 ml vegetable, chicken or fish stock (you may need more, use your judgement to ensure the pasta is well covered and has enough liquid throughout the boiling stage)
1 1/2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 red onion, cut into wedges
1 small courgette, thinly sliced
1 banana shallot, finely chopped
1 plump garlic clove, crushed or finely chopped
1 tbsp nduja, 1/2 fresh red or green chilli or 1/4 tsp chilli flakes
350 gr cherry tomatoes, quartered if fresh, left whole if from a tin or jar (I used a jar of datterini tomatoes)
150 ml vermouth or dry white wine (I used Noilly Prat)
2 good handfuls of fresh clams
4-6 artichoke hearts (from a tin or a jar is fine), drained, rinsed and quartered
fresh parsley, finely chopped plus a little extra for garnish
fresh or died oregano
a few sprigs of thyme if you have them
A bay leaf or 2
Heat the oven to 200 C.
Liberally season 1 tbsp of oil in a bowl and toss the onion wedges and courgette slices through to coat. Roast in the oven until tender, about 40 mins..
Cook the fregola in the stock for 3-4 minutes less than indicated on the packet instructions. Drain, reserving the stock.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1/2 tbsp of oil in a heavy-based casserole and add the chopped shallot. Saute until translucent, then add the garlic and nduja (or chilli if using). Saute for a few more minutes, then deglaze with the vermouth (or wine). Allow to reduce.
Add the tomatoes, the herbs and the pasta stock. Turn the heat down to low, season and simmer uncovered for 20-30 mins.
Add the pasta, the artichoke hearts and the clams to the tomato sauce. Add more water or vermouth if needed, depending on how thick or thin you like the sauce. It’s nice if it’s a little “brothy”. Cook until the clams have opened and the pasta is al dente.
Discard any stalky herbs, the bay leaf and any clams that haven’t opened. Check the seasoning.
Toss the vegetables through the tomato sauce to heat through. Garnish with extra chopped parsley for serving.