Recipe: Fregola with Clams and Sweet Vermouth
There was a time not too long ago when I made many fish dishes for Christmas Eve. I spent days preparing them. This was when everyone in my family was still living and healthy. Things have changed. My father died more than ten years ago. My mother is now on a feeding tube, and, in an odd coincidence, my husband’s father is now also on a feeding tube. I can’t get too exciting about preparing an elaborate dinner in the presence of two people who ingest Ensure through holes in their stomachs. This new reality is heartbreaking for everyone, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Embarrassment, shame, guilt, emotions that have always run high in my family, have hit the roof.
Okay, holidays can be stressful, but I always had my kitchen to hide in. What a hot, sweaty, pleasure it is, how much I do love cooking for people I love, especially when they can actually eat. I really wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the situation this year. I thought about just acting as if Christmas didn’t exist. But food isn’t everything. It isn’t? What is everything? Being together despite how crappy and mortified everyone feels? I guess that’s the right answer.
What I’ve decided to do this year is to cook an inconspicuous Christmas Eve dinner. I’ll make one good dish and just kind of stick it on the table, as if this were any other night. This way no one gets hurt but we still have Christmas Eve together, maybe not in high Southern Italian style, but facts are facts. Not focusing on food is completely foreign to me and my family, so these damn feeding tubes really are the ultimate insult. I hate them with a passion. This year I’ll be concentrating on other things, like trying to make the old people in my life as happy as possible. And there are always gifts to open, and the Louis Prima Christmas album.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
Fregola with Clams and Sweet Vermouth
(Serves 4 as a main course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large shallot, minced
1 small celery rib, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 allspice, ground to a powder
1 fresh red chili, minced (a peperoncino is perfect)
¼ cup sweet vermouth
1 cup chicken broth
¾ pound large fregola pasta
About 4 dozen littleneck or Manila clams (they’re basically the same), the smaller the better, soaked and well scrubbed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
About 6 large sprigs of marjoram
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, stemmed
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season with salt.
In a large skillet, big enough to hold all the clams when opened, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté until just crisp. Add the shallot, celery, garlic, allspice, and hot chili, and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, a pinch of salt, and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes longer.
Add the clams, and cook partially covered for a few minutes. Take off the cover, and give them a stir. As the clams open, use tongs to pull them from the sauce into a bowl. They won’t all open at once, and if you leave the early openers in the skillet, they’ll be overcooked by the time the rest decide to pop. Drizzle the clams with a little olive oil. Turn off the heat.
When about half of the clams have opened, drop the fregola into the water. When the fregola is al dente, after about 10 minutes, drain it, and pour it out onto a large, shallow serving bowl. Give it a generous drizzle of olive oil, and add the lemon zest and the marjoram. Give it a quick toss. Add the clams back to the skillet, along with the butter, and heat gently for about 30 seconds. Pour the clams and sauce over the fregola. Taste for salt. If your clams are salty, you might not need to add any more. Garnish with the parsley leaves.