All right, here’s a challenge. How do you take a pot of shrimp and pasta, perfectly prepared to delight you and dinner guests, then pour in five cups of stock, and avert disaster? Not just that, but bring it instead to triumph, much better than what originally was intended? Quite a baffler. Is there a solution? There has to be. What’s the answer? Come on, think. Concentrate.
Wait, that’s it. Of course! You give the stock a chance to reduce, to intensify its flavor and to let the pasta and shrimp absorb all that briny richness. This is a technique Sardinians mastered centuries ago when cooking up Fregola with Shrimp and Tomatoes, perhaps their island’s signature dish. Why shouldn’t it be? It takes tomatoes and wheat grown in the sunny interior, and entices them with the bounty taken from the azure Mediterranean beyond.
A superb combination that inspired the editors of Milk Street to tell the world in the September-October 2019 issue. Second, perhaps, only to reducing the stock in ensuring the meal’s excellence, is touching the shrimp with a toasty char initially, then holding off on final cooking until the very end. This allows the shrimp to keep its juicy succulence, which only is achieved when the shellfish is just-cooked-through. Barely so at that.
What better pasta than fregola to carry the other ingredients to victory? This is an unusual variety, rarer still in the States, which was located for tonight’s recipe only eventually, at a specialty Italian grocery. Fregola is made from hardened wheat, then is pushed through a broad sieve and is toasted lightly. This gives it a coarse, dense grain which is ideal for a long simmer and all the taste it imparts. Here’s the superstar, before the show: Then, of course, is the broth that makes possible the whole production. While homemade chicken stock in elevated, it is by itself insufficient for tonight’s purposes. Only when it simmers with clam juice, shrimp shells and assorted herbs is it ready for a date with the pasta. What a couple.
In fact, la romanza leads to marriage, as the broth boils down to its essence, which it then gladly shares with the fregola. Reduction in volume brings about a great amplification in flavor, as it does in the best relationships. Adding by subtracting. See? You knew you should concentrate.
Fregola with Shrimp and Tomatoes
- 1-and-1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and shells reserved
- two (8-ounce) bottles of clam juice
- 3 cups chicken broth (*1)
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste (*2)
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved (*3)
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (*4)
- 1 medium carrot, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly
- 2 medium garlic cloves, grated finely (*5)
- 1 cup fregola (*6)
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 cup finely-chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
In a medium microwave-safe bowl, combine the shrimp shells, clam juice, broth, bay, thyme and peppercorns. Microwave on high until the shells are pink and the mixture is hot, 4 to 5 minutes. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer set over another medium bowl, then discard the solids the strainer retained.
Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Set a small stockpot over a medium-high flame. Pour in one tablespoon of the oil and heat until just smoking. Add half the shrimp and cook, without stirring, until well-browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large plate. Repeat with another tablespoon of oil and the remaining shrimp.
After the last of the seared shrimp rests on the plate, add another tablespoon of oil to the stockpot. Add the tomatoes, onion, carrot and half a teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are spotty brown and the onion has softened, about three minutes.
Add the garlic and fregola, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in two cups of the shrimp broth, then bring to a simmer. Reduce flame to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is absorbed, about ten minutes. Stir in another two cups of stock return to a simmer and cook, stirring, until most of he liquid is absorbed, about ten minutes longer.
Finally, add the remaining cup of shrimp stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the fregola is tender and creamy, about eight minutes.
Turn off the flame and stir in the shrimp and any juices it left on the plate. Then, stir in the lemon juice, parsley and the remaining tablespoon of oil. Cover and let stand until the shrimp are opaque throughout, about seven minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
1 – Naturally, homemade is so much better, and preparing it ahead in large quantities allows you the keep the freezer well-stocked with quart containers of gold, just waiting for their opportunity.
Of course, store-bought ranges in quality from barely passable to nearly-half-as-good, and it is available instantly. If you take that option, be sure to choose a low-sodium variety, as most supermarket lines are too well-salted. Egregiously so.
2 – If you can get it, select sea salt, as its more mellow flavor matches well with seafood. It is of the ocean too, after all.
3 – You may wish to use tomatoes that come in various colors, including non-reds, as they make for a more attractive presentation. The great thing about grape or cherry tomatoes is that they retain a surprising amount of their peak excellence, even now in late winter. That’s not true of most other kinds, which either are picked in August, or are best-to-try-again-next-summer.
4 – I swear that said, “large shallot.” You know, I don’t read so good.
5 – Microplane. Paging the microplane…
6 – As mentioned, fregola isn’t the easiest thing to find, unless you have an Italian grocer on your block. A fine substitute is large-grain (aka Israeli) couscous.