I can't stop making this. It's a rustic, warming one-pot wonder made from ingredients I can pick up locally, making it the ideal go-to for an impromptu dinner with friends. Cooking fills the house with delicate scents of saffron and it's ready to eat within an hour.
It's a not-quite-verbotim take on this recipe by David Tanis at the New York Times. David's recipe is a more traditional Sardinian seafood stew, using calamari and anchovies. I adapted it to a vegetarian dish, swapping aubergine for the calamari and capers for the anchovies.
It's also a chance to celebrate SAFFRON: those glamorous, pricey red strands that can take a dish from so-so to sensational. Saffron are actually dried crocus flowers, and have been used in traditional medicine for generations. Studies have shown saffron can help with digestive problems, heart health, depression, insomnia and anxiety. The red pigment in saffron has been studied for anti-tumour properties. It's expensive, yes, but a little goes a long way, and a box of saffron should last a while (unless you cook this every week, as I've been doing.)
There are a couple of adjustments to David's recipe to account for the aubergine in place of calamari. It's good to get everything prepped before you start, as the timings are pretty quick between each step.
SPICY SARDINIAN AUBERGINE WITH FREGOLA
- 2 large aubergines, halved lengthwise and cut into 1" half-moon wedges
- 4-5 tbsp rapeseed oil
- Salt and pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 tbsp capers
- 4 small garlic cloves, minced
- 1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
- ⅛ teaspoon crumbled saffron
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 cup diced canned tomato
- ¾ cup vegetable broth or bouillon
- 1 cup fregola sarda (add 1/2 cup for heartier appetites)
- a good handful of fresh basil leaves
In a large deep frying pan over a medium heat, add half the rapeseed oil. When hot, add the aubergine wedges, white-side down. Fry for around 5 mins, until golden, then flip to the other side. Remove from pan to a warm plate. Continue with remaining aubergine wedges and oil until all is cooked. Remove to the warm plate and set aside.
Using the same pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over a medium heat. Add the capers, chilli flakes and garlic, stir well and let sizzle for around 1 minute. Add the onions to the pan, season with a good pinch of salt and stir well until all flavours are combined. Cook the onions for around 5 minutes, until soft and beginning to take on some colour. Now add the saffron, which you crumble between your fingers as you add it in, and the wine. Stir and cook for around 2 mins, then add the broth and tomatoes. Reduce heat to a simmer, stir well and leave to cook for around 10 minutes, uncovered. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary, I added another couple of pinches of salt and plenty of fresh black pepper at this point.
While the stew is simmering, bring a large pan of salted water to boil. Add the fregola and cook for 8-10 minutes, until al-dente. The texture should be a little like pasta. Drain (I kept a little of the fregola water back when I drained, and added some of this water to the sauce to keep it more brothy) and stir a little oil or butter through the fregola to prevent it sticking. Set aside.
Now return to the stew. Add the aubergine wedges to your sauce and turn the heat up a notch. Stir well, let the aubergines warm and collapse slightly. When everything is well mingled and the seasoning is right, remove from heat and fold in the basil leaves. Top with a dash of olive oil and serve, spooning the aubergine over the fregola.
Prep time: 10 mins. Cook time: 45 mins.