A possible result of the remarkable tides of culinary influences and ideas that wash the shores of the Mediterranean, fregola sarda is a relatively obscure Sardinian pasta - a similar idea to the north African rolled wheat-balls that we know as couscous. Some poor, misled bastards may only recognise the latter in its retailed form as Ainsley Harriott’s Couscous. I feel sorry for them.
There's another Mediterranean similarity in Lebanon's 'mughrabiyeh' or Palestine's 'maftoul', also little rolled balls of wheat about the size of a black peppercorn, although not toasted like fregola. Both are served traditionally as a filling accompaniment to meat, especially chicken.
Fregola sarda, then, are rolled balls of durum wheat semolina (pasta to you, mate) which are then toasted to give a distinctive and wholly delightful vignetted brown colouring ad a totally unique flavour, earthy and rich. It’s good old fashioned peasant food and, like so many good old fashioned peasant foods, is only now available in ‘artisan’ delicatessen packets. You can get it through the Internet, specialist stockists or, if you live in Dubai, from the little shop of rare delights that graces the Grand Hyatt hotel’s Panini, probably one of the nicest places in the city to have a casual and excellent coffee, sandwich and cake.
Fregola sarda should not be confused with ‘pepe’, the little pasta balls that make up one of the many (and confusingly named) varieties of ‘soup pasta’ the Italians are so fond of – although it can be used in that role (where it adds a certain cloudiness and a lovely thickness because of the loose starch that clings to the little balls of pasta after they’ve been rubbing about in their packet). It’s more distinctive than that – it’s great as a salad ingredient in place of orzo, for instance; it makes a smashing base for little piles of roasted vegetables and can be served in warm risotto-like mixtures, replacing the Arborio.
Here it’s a base for a Mediterranean-style marinated chicken breast, although if you want to serve two, you can ditch the chicken and just serve the warm mixture of pasta, bacon and courgette.
I love grilling meats – it’s by far my favourite treatment for chicken breast and striploin steaks – and I always line the grill pan with foil to save on washing up but also to collect the juices. It helps if you push the foil down between the bars.
A note on toasting pine nuts. I like to toast pine nuts in a small, dry frying pan, tossing them with such gay abandon that excited archaeologists exploring the far-flung and darker corners of my kitchen often discover long-lost pine nuts.
- 4 chicken breasts
- 50 ml honey
- 50 ml vinegar
- 50 ml white wine
- 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Sliced zest of ½ lemon
- 150 fregola sarda pasta
- 2 courgettes, chopped
- 25g pine nuts, toasted
- 25g parmesan, grated
- 2 rashers smoked back bacon, chopped
- 1 large shallot, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 50ml white wine
Mix together the marinade ingredients and marinate the chicken for as long as you reasonably can – ideally more than a couple of hours.
Boil a kettle of water and put the fregola sarda in a pan with a splash of olive oil.
Grill the chicken, basting with the marinade so that it browns and crisps, turning it over after about 10-12 minutes. When it’s done, allow it to sit for a short while.
While the chicken’s cooking, cook the fregola sarda. Pour the boiling water over the pasta and cook it for 12-14 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a frying pan, fry off the shallot in the oil, adding the courgettes, the bacon and finally the garlic. Take the pan off the heat and add the wine. When the pasta has lost its hard, chalky core and is ‘al dente’, drain it off and then pour it into the courgette and bacon mixture. Toss it all together, adding the grated parmesan and, finally, the toasted pine nuts
If you’ve timed it right, the chicken will just be done and rested for five minutes – so you can slip the pasta mixture into a warmed plate, top it with a chicken breast (and maybe pour over some of the dark, sticky juices from the grill pan), serve it up with a fine pinot grigio and Robert’s yer father’s brother!