I am a sucker for fregula Sarda, the toasted couscous-like pasta from the gorgeous isle of Sardinia. I am also a sucker for Thanksgiving. So when I came across a recipe for a hearty Thanksgiving gratin that listed fregula Sarda as a main ingredient, well, my pasta-loving, holiday-loving head nearly exploded.
Well maybe it wasn't that graphic but still: I got myself to the grocery store right away.
Fregula Sarda is just about the most fragrant, nutty and pleasingly textural small pasta you'll ever taste. It's a bit hard to find, though, which is why I consider myself blessed that my husband's office is in Chelsea Market in NYC. When he is in the city on business, I ask him to stop in the Italian market located on the street level of Chelsea Market and stock up on fregula and other elusive Italian specialties, such as malloreddus and pane carasau and 00 flour. If you're not in New York and/or you don't have a well-stocked Italian market nearby, you can always order your fregula online. (And if you can't find fregula or don't wish to go the online route, Israeli couscous is an acceptable substitute. It might not have the roasty-toastiness of the fregula, but its shape and texture works well in this gratin.)
The gratin recipe I found came from the pages of "Martha Stewart Living." She calls it "Cauliflower gratin with endive," but I prefer to call it "Cauliflower and fregula Sarda gratin." (I would call it simply "Fregula Sarda gratin," but then it sounds like some gourmet mac-n-cheese.) Regardless, I feel that the fregula should be highlighted in the title; it is, after all, the bright beacon that guided me to the recipe in the first place, the shining semolina lighthouse on a craggy coast of cauliflower florets.
Cauliflower and fregula Sarda gratin is a delicious amalgamation of seemingly disparate ingredients: the aforementioned glorious fregula (OK, OK, shut up about the fregula!), a head of cauliflower, pale-green endive and melty smooth Gruyere. The fregula adds a rustic and flavorful heartiness to the dish; the cauliflower, subtle vegetable crunch; the endive, a bitter element to contrast the cauliflower's mildness; the Gruyere, well, cheesy goodness. All rounded out by a dash of cayenne.
You might think that a pasta-based side dish would be too much as part of a meal notorious for its starchy side dishes. But trust me, this gratin has a place alongside the mashed potatoes and stuffing on the Thanksgiving table. Because Thanksgiving is about neither moderation, nor mindless consumption. It is about homemade traditions, appreciation for the season's bounty, celebration of those things -- food and family -- that make us who we are and make us happy. I see no reason why several carbohydrate-based dishes cannot be a part of this well-considered and well-woven culinary fabric.
I see no reason why a Sardinian pasta cannot become part of the American Thanksgiving tradition.
CAULIFLOWER AND FREGULA SARDA GRATIN
Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 heads endive, cut lengthwise into sixths
1 c. fregula Sarda (or Israeli couscous)
1 large head of cauliflower (about 2 lbs.), cut into bite-sized florets
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3 c. milk
1 T. dried oregano
1 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
12 oz. grated Gruyère cheese
1/3 c. panko
1/3 c. grated Pecorino cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the rack in the lower third of the oven.
Butter a deep, wide ovenproof dish. Place the endive in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle the fregula Sarda (or Israeli couscous, if using) over the endive. Top with cauliflower.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the milk and cook, whisking frequently, until the mixture thickens, about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the oregano, salt, black pepper and cayenne. Add the Gruyère and mix until it melts and is smooth.
Pour the cheese mixture over the cauliflower. Sprinkle panko over the gratin. Set the dish on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with grated Pecorino. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for an additional 40 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender. If the cheese browns too quickly, tent the dish with aluminum foil and return to the oven. After baking, transfer the dish to a wire rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 servings.