Have you tried these delicious nutty little gems? I fell deeply in love with them. I’m not kidding – I lie awake at night imagining new ways I can use these modest and hard-to-find pasta pebbles. I even love the way they look in my kitchen, sitting there in a big heavy jar, a rustic mix of cream and butter yellow hues, like something ancient and poetic that was once traded in hessian sacks… Oh, belle fregole – how have I cooked so long without you?
Sometimes they’re referred to as ‘fregule’ and technically they’re tiny pasta pieces made from semolina flour and roasted but I think they deserve their own category entirely. They’re hard to find – even in Italy! Many people say they remind them of Israeli couscous. A typical recipe is fregola with clams in a rich tomato sauce but you can also use them like a creamier plumper version of couscous in a salad.
HOWEVER, the most divine way to use them in my opinion is in a salty chicken and vegetable soup with generous shavings of Pecorino Romano. This is one of those wonderful recipes where the measurements don’t really matter. If you’ve only got a few carrots and one celery stick, that’s fine. If you want to add peas for extra sweetness, go for it. So long as you have the balance of sweet vegetables, salty pancetta or bacon and then the fregola pasta thickens your broth and bubbles away with the chicken stock to create something that is truly nourishing for a lazy weekend lunch. This is what I love most about Italian cooking – when flavours are so destined for each other that the ratio matters little. I had some chicken stock from a roast I made yesterday (see below 🙂 ) but you could easily just use chicken stock cubes. Keep adding cubes until the saltiness is to your liking. Remember that the pancetta is already giving the soup that smoky base note and the Pecorino to serve with finish it with extra saltiness. I don’t add any sea salt to the vegetables – there’s enough in the recipe already.
When I first made this soup for Patrick he became so obsessed with it that he begged me to serve it up for lunch and dinner for days after. THIS is where I was surprised by fregola – usually when I add pasta to a minestrone, the next day any leftovers are somewhat ruined because the pasta absorbs all the broth and you have soggy pasta that’s far past al dente and not salvageable. Fregole seem to hold their shape even if you overcook them and the next day your soup will still have plenty of broth ready to reheat and smother in cheese. If you do want to extend the soup, just add more water, bring the soup to the boil and throw in another stock cube.
The difficulty is the availability of the humble fregola but next time you’re in an Italian deli ask them about it because it really is so different from normal pasta. When cooked, the outside is glossy and smooth, the inside texture chewy, the flavour nutty, the cooking time minimal.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup chopped pancetta
1 large onion or 3 leeks finely chopped
celery sticks, diced
2-3 chicken stock cubes + water
3/4 cup fregole (or however much you prefer)
1. In a large soup pot fry off the pancetta until it is almost crispy (I like the croccante texture to contrast with the smooth silky fregole when you get a spoonful of the two).
2. Add vegetables and cook on medium heat until the onion is transparent. Don’t worry if the other vegetables aren’t cooked through, they’ll soften in the broth.
3. Fill the pot almost to the top with water and bring to the boil. (Or add your chicken stock if not using cubes.)
4. When bubbling, add the stock cubes and the fregole and cook on high until the stock has distributed evenly and the fregole feel al dente when tasted. This should be about 7-10 minutes or so.
Serve with thick chunks of crusty bread and grated Pecorino Romano cheese.