Fregola (also called fregula) is a kind of pasta, typical of Sardinia, that looks and tastes much like Israeli couscous. Arselle are tiny clams that live under the sand right on the shore line. Although you might be surprised by the pairing, this odd couple makes for some delicious eating.
- 250g (1/2 lb.) of fregola (or Israeli couscous)
- 750g (1-1/2 lb.) fresh clams, as small as you can find them
- A bit of white wine
- 250g (1/2 lb.) of canned tomatoes, passed through a food mill, or the equivalent amount of purée
- 1 liter (1 quart) of fish stock or well-seasoned water (see Notes)
- 3-4 cloves of garlic
- Olive Oil
- A handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
If you have any suspicions that your clams will have some sand in them, soak them in water for at least an hour before cooking.
In a large pot, lightly brown a clove of garlic or two in some olive oil. Remove the garlic clove and add the clams, along with a splash of white wine. Cover immediately (depending on the heat, the wine may cause the oil to spatter) and cook over a lively flame until all of the clams have opened. Remove the clams and remove the meat from their shells. (If you like, you can leave a few clams in their shells for decorating your final dish.) If your clams are large, cut them up roughly. Keep the juices in the pot for later.
Meanwhile, make a soffritto of finely chopped parsley and another clove or two of garlic gently sautéed in a generous amount of olive oil. Add the canned tomatoes and simmer for a few minutes to let the flavors meld.
Add the fish stock or water to the tomato sauce, along with your fregola and the juices from the clams. Raise the heat until you have reached a low boil. It will seem as first as if you have way too much liquid, but not to worry: it absorbs a lot of liquid. You will soon see that the fregola will have absorbed most, if not all, of the liquid. In fact, you will probably need to add water from time to time; the pasta should be covered with liquid until it is almost done; then let it cook down to your taste (see Notes). Cooking time will vary, but count on 20 minutes or more.
When the fregola are al dente, add the shelled clams to the pot, just long enough to heat them through. Ladle the pasta and accompanying sauce into deep pasta plates, top with reserved clams in their shells, a bit of finely chopped parsley and un filo d’olio (a drizzle of olive oil). Some freshly ground pepper would not be amiss, either.
Fregola can be found in Italian specialty shops or online. And, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can even make it yourself. If you can’t find any, Israeli couscous is a good substitute, although fregola is toasted, so the flavor will not be quite as rich. In a pinch, I imagine you could even use risoni (orzo pasta) but, of course, the result will be quite different (reduce the amount of liquid as well, perhaps by half). Although this might well be the best known dish made from it, this is an extremely versatile pasta that can be dressed not just with seafood, but with vegetables or meats as well. As some readers may remember, it made its first appearance on this blog in late 2009, when we featured fregula e salsiccia. I have not been able to find any information on the origins of fregola, but my bet is that it is, in fact, a relative of couscous and a product of Moorish influence, which was considerable in Sardinia, if perhaps not as strong as in Sicily.
Finding true arselle is probably an impossible dream for most of us, so best to simply make sure that the clams you do buy, as mentioned, are as small as possible. You can even cheat a little and use bottled or canned clams, but, of course, the taste will not be same. (Nor will the texture, since the meat tends to be quite rubbery.)
Fish stock (fumetto di pesce in Italian) is quick and easy to make: just simmer a fish carcass (heat, bones and tail, or just a head) and/or the shells from shrimp, lobster and/or crabs) in enough water to cover with a sliced onion, a sprig of fresh parsley, and a chopped stalk of celery and ample salt for about 30 minutes. (Some recipes, like this one, are more elaborate, adding more herbs and white wine, among other ingredients and calling for an hour of simmering.) If you don’t feel like making stock specially, then some bottled clam juice diluted in water will do nicely, as will simple water, well seasoned.
The portions indicated, by the way, are really just notional. Like many traditional recipes, they can vary freely according to taste and pocket-book. Add more clams if you want, and more or less tomato as you prefer (or none at all, for a version in bianco). Some recipes for this dish call for sun-dried tomatoes and/or a bit of peperoncino, added to the soffritto.
The ratio of pasta to water, on the other hand, is important, although there, too, the quality of the fregola will determine how much liquid it absorbs. The quantity indicated here is a kind of minimum. The dish can be served quite brothy, more of a soup than a pasta, quite dry or, as I prefer, something rather in-between.