Every year for the past three, we’ve celebrated the dying days of summer with the family somewhere in Italy. To date it’s been the Amalfi Coast, then Sicily, and this year Sardinia. We basked in turquoise waters, soaked up the last rays of sun, quaffed fragrant Vermentino di Gallura and explosive Cannonau (aka Garnacha/Grenache) and committed to the barbecue what must have been the priciest fish ever purchased (at least by me) – a dentice, since you ask, and delicious he was too. He weighed in at over 2 kilos and fed 7 of us handsomely for one meal with enough leftovers for a fish salad with avocado, ceviche-style. The bones went to make a memorable stock which perfumed a risotto alle vongole next day. Here he is before he hit the fire.
We ate wonderfully well – food is, unsurprisingly, rather a priority for us all on holiday. We all love cooking, so eating in is no hardship. But when we ate out, I admit it was a bit disappointing not to find much local food, dishes bearing the stamp of the island and its culinary traditions – not least because I had scheduled A Taste of Sardinia workshop on my return.
The little multi-purpose grocery shop nearby had neat little packs of durum-wheat, no-egg pastas like fregola, little lentil-sized dots, and maloreddus, shaped like tiny cowry shells – almost too beautiful to cook/eat. Yet in the local trattorie there was no sign of this kind of pasta – or anything that felt at all tipico. In the bookshop in Palau I found a great little book entitled Le Buone Ricette Sardegna, full of ideas for cooking fregola with shellfish, or maloreddus with sausage and wild mushrooms. How to track down this kind of cooking, dishes that spoke and smelled of the island?
To the rescue came Sarah, fount of all local knowledge and general factotum for our villa. She set up a meeting with two wonderful ladies named Anna Maria and Giuseppina, to talk local food. They started by apologising for the fact that they were not chefs but practised home cooks – just what I’d hoped for. We leafed through the book together and they exclaimed over the different recipes, which they approved as thoroughly authentic (and gave me lovely ones of their own). How come there was so little of this kind of food served in restaurants? They looked baffled, then suggested that fregola, maloreddus & Co. is home cooking, not cheffy stuff and definitely not considered fancy enough to be served in restaurants.
Nothing for it, I’d have to create my own tastes of Sardinia. Back home, I made this little soup-stew of fregola with shellfish and saffron. It featured at last week’s workshop, and we feasted on it (and lots of other dishes) on the terrace. We didn’t have the turquoise water below the house, but it was a glorious Indian summer day, worthy of Sardinia.
If you can’t find fregola, substitute mograbieh, Israeli couscous or acini di pepe. Here it’s cooked a bit like risotto, with just enough fish stock for the pasta to absorb, and shellfish stirred in at the end. You can cook the mussels and cockles ahead, shell them (leave some in their shells as a colourful garnish) and refrigerate them. Then cook the pasta as for risotto, adding the shellfish at the end to heat through.
About 1kg mixed cockles and mussels
2 tablespoons olive oil
250g fregola or alternatives
1 fresh red or green chile (peperoncino), de-seeded, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, mashed
500ml fish stock
2 pinches of saffron (powdered or threads)
6-8 prawns, preferably raw
1 tomato, cored, chopped
Salt and pepper
Flat-leaf parsley to garnish
Pull the beards out of the mussels (if not already cleaned) and give them a good scrub.
Put the cockles in a large bowl, cover generously with cold water and add a handful of coarse salt. Swish them around vigorously and leave for a few hours so they release their sand, lifting and swirling them around from time to time and changing the water once or twice. Drain.
Tip the drained shellfish into a large frying pan or paella pan, cover and cook (no added liquid) over lively heat, shaking from time to time, till all the shellfish are gaping open – about 5-6’.
Set a colander over a bowl and tip in the shellfish (reserve the pan for later). Remove almost all the shellfish from shells – leave a few un-shelled for the garnish.
Strain the shellfish cooking juices into a saucepan through a muslin or fine cloth to remove sand, add the fish stock and saffron and bring to a simmer.
In the reserved frying pan or paella pan heat 1 tablespoon of oil and soften the chopped chile and garlic without allowing them to brown. Stir in the pasta and let it toast lightly and take a bit of colour. Pour in 1 cup of hot fish stock and cook till absorbed. Add 1 more cup and continue cooking till all the stock is absorbed and the pasta just tender to the bite and nicely plumped up (about 10 minutes).
Stir the shelled mussels and cockles into the pasta, arrange reserved shellfish (in shells) and prawns on top, add any remaining stock and cook for about 5 minutes more or until piping hot and the prawns (if raw) have turned pink. Finally, stir in the chopped tomato
Spoon into soup bowls, sprinkle with chopped parsley and add a drizzle of olive oil.