Monday, July 16, 2007
I had great plans for my bag of fregola sarda, which I bought at the Italie à Table show on the Promenade des Anglais back in early June. I meant to thoroughly research this Sardinian pasta, which looks like overgrown couscous grains or coarsely ground almonds that have been toasted until golden.
But then I was hungry, I had some diced raw eggplant leftover from the previous day's ratatouille and Sam was starting to get restless. I reached for the bag of penne but the fregola sarda was calling out to me, full of mystery and promise.
I remembered the woman who sold them to me saying something about tomatoes, which was all I understood of her rapid-fire instructions in Italian. Even at the height of tomato season my cupboard is never without a can of Mutti* crushed tomatoes, which I decided on impulse to combine with flavors that seemed to me vaguely Sardinian. There was time only for the briefest internet search to see how long to cook these little toasted pasta bobbles (about 12-15 minutes, or until just tender).
The result was a hugely satisfying dish thanks to the texture contrasts: the firm bite of the toasted pasta, the crunch of the walnuts, the silkiness of the eggplant and the dry crumbliness of the 40-month-old parmesan, which I also bought at the Italian show. Next time I would add chili pepper, as it seemed the pasta could take quite a bit of seasoning. I held back this time because of Sam, who reacts as if I've tried to kill him if I add the tiniest pinch of chili pepper to a dish: he grabs his throat, turns a dramatic shade of purple and spits out the offending mouthful. I at least had the satisfaction of seeing him gobble up the pasta, which looked to him like tiny gnocchi.
Note: I've just discovered that fregola sarda can be cooked like rice, by letting the cooking water evaporate. Luckily I still have half a bag left.
* I've just visited the Mutti website and discovered that Mutti claims to have INVENTED tomato pulp in 1971. I wonder how Italians made tomato sauce before then?
Fregola sarda with eggplant and walnuts
9 oz fregola sarda (250 g)
1 tbsp coarse sea salt
1 small eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 can crushed Italian tomatoes
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
A handful of shelled walnuts
A handful of flat (Italian) parsley leaves
A sprig of mint, leaves only
Your best olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the coarse salt and throw in the fregola sarda. Cook for 12-15 mins, checking for tenderness now and then after about 10 mins. Drain in a fine strainer.
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the eggplant and toss to coat with the oil, then cook, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the canned tomatoes, rosemary and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium-high heat until thickened.
Meanwhile, toast the walnuts on a baking dish in the oven at 375 F (180 C) until fragrant and lightly browned. Chop coarsely.
Chop the parsley and mint leaves.
Toss the pasta with the tomato-eggplant sauce and divide between two serving bowls. Top with the walnuts, herbs and shaved parmesan (use a vegetable peeler for this). Drizzle with your best olive oil.