Seriously Italian: Saffron Fregola with Potatoes and Peas

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!

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Fregola is a unique, rolled semolina pasta from the Sardinian region of Cagliari. It is most often compared to the large, pearly Israeli couscous, but I see it as way more exciting. Made with coarse semolina, fregola—or fregula—lacks the polished finish of Israeli couscous; it is misshapen and has a nubby, rough texture that makes it perfect for sopping up and conducting the flavors of sauce and broth.

Another key flavor element is the toasting. After the simple dough is rolled into roundish bits, it is left to dry in the sun, and then toasted in a large pan over a hot fire. The finished color is as irregular as the shape, giving fregola a deep, nutty flavor. Handmade fregola is extra-shaggy, more oblong than round, and not to be found off the island’s shores. Luckily, the manufactured stuff is still pretty darn good, and getting easier to find in some supermarkets.

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Many of the fregola dishes that have made their way out of Sardinia involve seafood of some sort—clams, mussels, or other shellfish are part of a tomato-based sauce, or brodetto, into which the fregola is simmered until tender. I like some of the more rustic, belly-filling preparations that combine fregola with potatoes, beans and fresh vegetables.

My recipe features saffron, another traditional Sardinian ingredient. Monks brought saffron to the island from central Italy sometime around the 9th century, and it was cultivated in earnest from the 13th century onward. Sardinia’s saffron has a smaller zone of production than that of L’Aquila, in Abruzzo, or Tuscany’s San Gimignano, but it contains more of the aromatic essential oils and pigments that comprise saffron’s flavor profile. Lucky Sardinians.

This dish is so pretty, vibrant yellow from the saffron and accented with bright green herbs and peas. It makes an excellent primi course, or serve it alongside meat, fish or poultry.

Saffron Fregola with Potatoes and Peas

-4 to 6 servings-

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 medium, waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 8 ounces)
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
A small pinch of red chili flakes or peperoncino
1 teaspoon kosher salt
A few grinds of black pepper
1 cup fregola
1 cup frozen peas
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
Extra virgin olive oil for finishing

1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy, deep sauté or sauce pan with a tightly fitting lid. Add the shallots and smashed garlic and sauté briefly, moving them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Season with a pinch of salt and add the potatoes to the pan, coating them with the oil; sauté the potatoes for a minute, moving them around the pan often.

2. Add the broth and water to the pan, followed by the saffron threads, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, chili flakes, salt and pepper. Allow the mixture to come to a simmer, then lower the heat slightly and cover the pan.

3. After five to seven minutes, test the potatoes with the tip of a paring knife. They should begin to turn tender, cooked about halfway. Add the fregola to the pan and stir, bringing the liquid back to a simmer. Cover the pan and continue to cook the fregola, stirring frequently as the liquid evaporates, for 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Uncover the pan and test the fregola for doneness, remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme, and adjust the seasoning. If necessary, you can add more water to pan as the fregola continues to cook, a few tablespoons at a time. When the fregola is almost completely tender, add the frozen peas and lemon juice to the pan and simmer for three more minutes, stirring until the peas are tender, the fregola cooked and the liquid almost completely evaporated.

5. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the parsley, grated cheese, and a generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

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