By Emily Paster
When I made my pilgrimage to Eataly -- Mario Batali's grand epicerie of all things Italian in lower Manhattan -- in November, I tried to be on the lookout for items that I had never seen before or that I suspected would be hard to find in a more conventional store. When I spied toasted fregola, a kind of pasta that looked like Israeli couscous but slightly darker, on the shelves of grains and dry pasta, I knew that I had found the kind of thing I wanted. I had never heard of toasted fregola. In fact, I had no idea what it was or how to cook it. Well, that's not quite true, is it? The small bag of toasted fregola was not totally foreign and scary, like an spiny puce-colored tropical fruit would be. It was clearly a kind of pasta. I was presumably going to cook it in some kind of boiling liquid. But it was a new and unconventional variety of a familiar ingredient -- exactly the kind of thing I wanted to bring home.
When I returned home, I researched toasted fregola and learned that it was a kind of small round pasta from Sardinia, made of semolina flour. The small pieces are toasted after they are made, which truly gives them a rich, nutty flavor. You can see quite plainly that the grains are different shades from tan to quite brown, almost burnt. Eating toasted fregola is unlike eating couscous or even pasta because of the extra level of flavor that the toasting imparts. My husband and I kept remarking on it as we ate the hearty vegetarian dish that I created to use my one precious bag of toasted fregola. The complex flavor was similar to eating a whole grain like farro or barley but with a smoother texture like pasta.
I loved what I had made with the toasted fregola so much that I immediately went on the Internet to find out how to buy more. I was shocked to find that a one-pound bag of toasted fregola will set your back anywhere from $5 to $9 on Amazon and that doesn't even include the shipping. At this point, you may be thinking: "Well Emily, how much was the bag your bought at Eataly?" Reader, I don't remember, okay? I wasn't exactly paying attention to the prices of things at Eataly. That may explain why none of the New Yorkers I talk to actually shop at Eataly. The toasted fregola there could easily have been $5 or more. Heck, I'd pay $5 now. I just don't want to pay $5 plus $8 shipping for one bag of tiny pasta.
Anyway, the high shipping cost of toasted fregola has only strengthened my resolve to find a good Italian market in Chicago. Someone in a twenty-mile radius of here has toasted fregola and I will find it. Oh yes, I will find it. And when I do, I'm buying more than one bag.
You can absolutely substitute pearl or Israeli couscous for the toasted fregola in this recipe, as I may have to soon, but it won't be the same. It will be fine, but it won't wow you. The toasted fregola, on the other hand, will. So, if you want to hold out until you can find toasted fregola where you live, I respect that.
Toasted Fregola with Zucchini, Peppers and Tomatoes
3 TB extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, diced
2 small zucchini, diced
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
1 lb. toasted fregola
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth or water
Fresh parsley or basil or dried herbs such as basil, oregano or herbes de Provence
Grated Parmesan (optional)
Heat the oven in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion and garlic and saute over low heat until translucent. Add the red pepper and continue to saute until the red pepper is tender. Add the zucchini and saute for a few additional minutes. Season vegetables well with salt and pepper and dried herbs, if you are using them. When the vegetables are sufficiently tender, add the can of tomatoes with their juice, crushing the tomatoes with your hands or the back of a spoon. Stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken, approximately ten minutes. Add the 4 cups liquid and bring to a boil. Once the sauce is boiling, add the fregola. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture until the fregola is cooked through but still al dente, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs and/or grated Parmesan. Enjoy (because you may not know where your next bag of toasted fregola is coming from)!