Well damn. I stepped out for mussels back in August and I'm just now getting back. The traffic is thick in L.A., what can I say?
Here's the good news, I've returned armed with the goods for your next go-to summer dish. It's easy, quick to throw together, and it seems super fancy so you can impress all of your friends. After you see it, you will all agree that it was well worth the wait, I'm certain.
What have I got?
Well, mussels and clams, which sound like they would be the stars of the dish, yeah?
But wait, I've also arrived with fregola! Yes! The fregola! For all of you unawares, fregola is a Sardinian semolina pasta that looks like tiny, gold pearls.
Now listen, you might, in your laziness, reach for that neglected box of Israeli couscous in the cupboard thinking that it's a viable sub. Well it's not. Fregola is better because it's toasted, which brings out a divine nuttiness, and the rough exterior allows sauce to cling to it, unlike your dusty old couscous. So get off of your keester, go to Whole Foods and grab a TEN DOLLAR bag of the Sardinian pasta.
Because if you try to use couscous I will come to your house and flog you and you'll be really sorry you tried to pull the wool over my eyes.
But enough threats, here's what you'll need for the plat du jour:
Fregola, clams & mussels, black oil-cured olives, fennel and its frond, shallot, tomato, white wine, bay, thyme, marjoram, olive oil.
First things first, boil your fregola. Fregola, tiny as it is, is a hard pasta and takes some time to cook, so don't make the mistake of waiting till after everything is perfectly sweated down and caramelized, your shellfish popped open, your fresh herbs tossed into the pan. Get that going pronto. And don't forget to salt your water. How much salt? It should taste of the sea.
Clean up your mussels: scrub off their little barnacles and shave off the manly little beard that some of them have grown. The best way to do this is to get a grip on the whiskers, yank them down toward their hinge end and pull them off. If you try to pull them through the lip, you will kill the mussel. The beard is attached to the creature inside, not the shell.
Soak your shellfish in a bowl of cold water while you are prepping everything else. If they have any sand in them they will relax and expel it now. This also helps to leach out some of the salt.
Mince up your shallot and fennel.
Pit and give your olives a rough chop.
Now get all your fennel and shallot in a pan with a leaf of bay and sweat it all down. Sweat? Hell yes, sweat! That means no color on that veg. Be sure to salt this layer here, as I always preach. Every layer should be salted so that the entire dish is seasoned, not just the surface.
Get your tomato in there when your aromatics are soft.
Here's the thing, canned tomato is a raw product, and you have to cook it out to caramelize the sugars and concentrate the flavor. So, cook it out till it looks all rusty colored and smells like delicious tomato caramel. Oh, and of course you should salt the tomato...
When it smells like I have just described, deglaze the pan with white wine, scraping up any tomato bits on the bottom of the pan.
Have at the ready a lid for your pan, your herbs, your cooked fregola, your shellfish and your olives. Oh, and a little reserved pasta water.
When the wine has cooked out, add the rest of your ingredients to the pan with the reserved pasta water.
Scoop into pretty, simple bowls.
Make sure you get enough sauciness in that bowl.
Les fruits de la mer!
Mangia bene, vivi felice!