Especially in this Atkins-diet era, with carbohydrates under fire, carbo-loaders deserve some good news about their favorite food group. One promising development is the recent sighting of fregola (pronounced FREG-o-la) on Bay Area menus and in markets, sowing hope that this obscure but delicious grain may find a local audience.
Often referred to as Sardinian couscous, fregola is couscous's tastier cousin. Both are made from semolina mixed with water, formed into pellets and dried. But couscous pellets are light and fine, whereas fregola is generally coarser and rougher. More important, fregola is toasted, giving it a nutty, wheaty, roasted taste that couscous lacks. Nor do the pearl-like semolina balls known as Israeli couscous compete with fregola for texture and flavor.
Thanks to Italian food distributors who recently introduced fregola, Bay Area diners can now savor a grain that even many Italians don't know. In the spirit of Italian regional cooking, fregola -- sometimes spelled fregula -- remains resolutely Sardinian. In fact, Sardinian-born chef Niccola Nieddu of Mill Valley's Piazza d'Angelo claims that fregola territory is even more circumscribed.
"It's not really from my area," says the chef. "Fregola is from the south side, near Cagliari. I'm from Gallura, on the north side. My mother, she never cooked it. I'm not sure she knows what it is."
Fresh clam connection
The few Italian cookbooks that include fregola usually marry it with fresh clams and tomatoes. In this traditional preparation, fregola is typically boiled separately, then united with the steamed clams and a tomato sauce made brothy with the strained clam juices. Giuliano Bugialli, in "Foods of Sicily & Sardinia" (Rizzoli, 1996), offers recipes for fregola with beans, fregola with potatoes and celery, and fregola with shrimp -- all exceedingly rustic, rib-sticking dishes. Joyce Goldstein, the Bay Area author and Italophile, says that her forthcoming book, "Italian Slow and Savory," will include a recipe for stuffed chicken poached in broth with fregola.
Leave it to Bay Area chefs to take this grain in new directions. Some are using it as a side dish, some as a room-temperature salad. Others are treating it like risotto, cooking it with slow additions of liquid. At Incanto in San Francisco, chef Chris Cosentino says he goes through 30 crabs a night when he puts Dungeness crab fregola, prepared risotto style, on the menu. At Lulu in San Francisco last spring, chef Jared Doob cooked fregola like risotto, with preserved lemons and chicken stock, then stirred in spring vegetables to make a bed for salmon.
At the Oakville Grocery in Palo Alto, chef Christopher Holt uses fregola in a variation on a Greek salad, with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, oregano and Greek olive oil. Nieddu has used it in a warm salad with tomatoes and bell peppers.
Philip Ferrato, staff chef at Wired Magazine in San Francisco, is another fregola enthusiast, and prepares the grain in unconventional ways. "It makes the best tabbouleh," claims Ferrato, who cooks it al dente, rinses it until cool, then combines it with typical tabbouleh ingredients such as parsley, garlic, tomato and cucumber. "People really like it because it's got that toasted flavor," he says. To accompany fish, he seasons boiled fregola with extra virgin olive oil and mixed chopped herbs.
One advantage of fregola over barley, rice, lentils or potatoes is that it cooks in 10 minutes, making it a speedy weekday side dish. Cook it in a generous quantity of boiling salted water or stock, then drain it and toss it with butter or olive oil. Some recipes call for adding a few saffron threads to the cooking liquid. Add fregola to winter bean soups in place of pasta, or combine it with sauteed mushrooms to accompany lamb shanks, game birds or beef stew.
Sizing it up
Although fregola apparently exists in a range of sizes, from fine to medium to coarse, you will probably not find this variety in Bay Area markets. The most widely available brand, the excellent La Casa del Grano, is distributed here only in the medium size. The Sardinian fregola packaged by Rustichella is comparable in size and quality. A third brand, Tanda & Spada, found at A. G. Ferrari stores, is larger, more uniform, mushier when cooked and not as appealing.
Tracking fregola's origins could keep a culinary historian in the library awhile. The Sardinians, naturally, insist that fregola is their own invention. Others suspect that the Arabs, who introduced couscous to Sicily, carried the idea to neighboring Sardinia. Succú, another Sardinian word for fregola, does sound something like couscous. The name fregola probably derives from Italian fregare, meaning to rub, an apt description of how moistened semolina is transformed into fregola's coarse crumbs.
So move over, penne and perciatelli. It's time to make room in the pantry for another example of Italy's pasta art. Winter soups will welcome fregola, and tabbouleh season lies ahead.