03 May 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Savory Sardinia

SARONNO, Italy - Saffron isn’t what you would normally think of as an Italian spice, but in reality it is a fundamental element in a lot of Italian dishes. In Sardinia, one of the key saffron producing areas, it flavors and colors casadinas and pardulas, small cakes filled with pecorino or ricotta cheese that has been mixed with a little sugar. You’ll also find it in a popular dish from Cagliari called fregula cun cocciula (pearly pasta much like couscous), mussels soup, and bugnoluses de casu friscu, delicious croquettes made of fresh pecorino cheese.
 Beautiful Sardinia
With Sardinia’s strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the island often fell prey to passing pirates and marauders, and many of them left traces of their visit behind primarily in the cuisine. But which of the many invaders introduced saffron to the island is difficult to say although the name saffron comes from the Arabic word “za’faran”, which means yellow. It probably arrived in Sardinia sometime between the 6th and the 9th centuries thanks to the Basilian monks who used it in religious ceremonies and as a fabric dye. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, that it was used as a spice. 

All that we know for sure  is the crocus flower, which produces the yellow stamen that is saffron, has been growing in Sardinia since the XVI and XVII centuries.
 Precious Saffron Threads
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, and often sells at a higher price than gold. It is a labor intensive operation. The crocus bulbs are first planted by hand and then harvested by hand, starting in the shadowy hour just before dawn. If the flowers are picked later in the day, the petals are sticky and it is difficult to separate them and remove the stamen threads from the flowers.

The next step in the process is to gently heat the stamen threads over almond wood coals to intensify the flavor. Then they are set out to dry, packaged and sold around the world. Here are two easy recipes using saffron, the first, using butterfly pasta, is from an old Italian recipe book I’ve had for years called Le Ricette Classiche, Classic Recipes, and the second, I found on seriouseats.com.
 Butterfly Pasta with Zucchine and Saffron

Butterfly Pasta with Saffron and Zucchini
Serves 4 
300 grams butterfly pasta
160 grams of zucchini
20 grams of parmesan or grana cheese (grated)
1 teaspoon of saffron threads
1 clove of garlic
Extra virgin olive oil

Put the saffron to soften in a small bowl with a little hot water. Clean and slice the zucchini. (the recipe says to peel them, but I never do). Peel the garlic and let it soften in a frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then remove it from the pan. Add the zucchine to the pan, let them cook for 3 or 4 minutes , turning when needed, and then add the saffron and water it softened in. Let cook for 10 minutes.

In the meantime boil the butterfly pasta in salted water. When cooked, drain and toss with the zucchini and a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and thyme. Serve in individual dishes, sprinkle with the cheese.

 Fregola with Potatoes and Peas
 Saffron Fregola with Potatoes and Peas
Serves 4-6
1 tablespoon olive oil 
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 medium, waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 8 ounces)
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
A small pinch of red chili flakes or peperoncino
1 teaspoon kosher salt
A few grinds of black pepper
1 cup fregola
1 cup frozen peas
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano 
Extra virgin olive oil for finishing

1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy, deep sauté or sauce pan with a tightly fitting lid. Add the shallots and smashed garlic and sauté briefly, moving them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Season with a pinch of salt and add the potatoes to the pan, coating them with the oil; sauté the potatoes for a minute, moving them around the pan often.

2. Add the broth and water to the pan, followed by the saffron threads, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, chili flakes, salt and pepper. Allow the mixture to come to a simmer, then lower the heat slightly and cover the pan.

3. After five to seven minutes, test the potatoes with the tip of a paring knife. They should begin to turn tender, cooked about halfway. Add the fregola to the pan and stir, bringing the liquid back to a simmer. Cover the pan and continue to cook the fregola, stirring frequently as the liquid evaporates, for 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Uncover the pan and test the fregola for doneness, remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme, and adjust the seasoning. If necessary, you can add more water to pan as the fregola continues to cook, a few tablespoons at a time. When the fregola is almost completely tender, add the frozen peas and lemon juice to the pan and simmer for three more minutes, stirring until the peas are tender, the fregola cooked and the liquid almost completely evaporated.

5. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the parsley, grated cheese, and a generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

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