There is nothing like stepping off a flight and breathing in the air of your chosen holiday destination. Yay! You’ve arrived. Today, I am dreaming about the unique island of Sardinia, my favourite Italian island. The air smells of freshly picked herbs — mostly wild fennel, which is the inspiration for this recipe.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily. It sits right next to the French island of Corsica. I have a strong fondness for Sardinia for many reasons. I love the natural beauty of the island, from the rugged mountainous interior to the pristine aquamarine beaches. I love that the island is steeped in a rich history and has 1850 kilometres of coastline. I’m also interested in the inhabitants because they have a considered way of eating – locally and seasonally.
Sardinia, just like Okinawa in Japan, is a Blue Zone. A Blue Zone is where there is a concentrated population of permanent residents that have the highest level of centenarians (100 years old) or super centenarians (over 100 years old) in the world. When I first visited Sardinia in 2004, I found it curious to see very elderly folk physically working. They were farming, working on the streets and working in kitchens. Why do Sardinians live so long? I reckon it has a lot to do with their diet and lifestyle. Sardinians eat locally grown food, mostly vegetables and not too much. (Michael Pollan would be pleased.) Generally, they don’t overindulge in alcohol, sweets or processed foods. (Saying this, the gelato on the island is beyond delicious and I recommend one serving a day, while you’re visiting.) Sardinians keep their stress levels in check, and they are usually very calm, kind, generous and healthy folk. We can learn a lot from these switched-on Sardinians.
In Australia, fennel is abundant throughout winter and spring, and right now it’s glorious and reminds me of visiting Sardinia. I have developed this recipe with Cassola (Sardinian seafood stew) in mind and I have used our locally available seafood. However, I have picked up a packet of fregola pasta at a local deli. This is true Sardinian rolled semolina pasta. You could use cous cous or the larger Israeli cous cous here instead.
I don’t like to use the fish heads in this stock, or the spine bones close to the head, as they are often threaded with blood. I prefer to use the fish bones closer to the tail. This little tip will produce a cleaner stock. The addition of acidic white wine lifts the stock. If you don’t want to use wine, use ¼ cup of white vinegar instead.
If you prefer, you can make the stock by roasting off the fish bones with the onion, leeks and fennel cut into larger chunks and sprayed with olive oil. Roast for 40 minutes or until carmelised in a 180° oven. Pop the bones and vegies in your stock pot and follow the recipe below at this point. This gives the stock and soup a deeper flavour. You may want to try this out.
I hope you enjoy.
Sardinian Seafood, Fennel and Fregola
1 kg white fish bones, cut into 5 cm pieces (I use snapper)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large brown onion, peeled and finely sliced
2 leeks, green part only, well washed and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, outer flesh and stalks, thinly sliced (keep the leaves for garnish)
1 cup dry white wine
2 litres water
3 strips of lemon peel, use a peeler and avoid the white pith
handful of parsley stalks
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
Sardinian Seafood, Fennel and Fregola
juice of 2 limes (or lemons) and the zest of 1
½ teaspoon saffron
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 leek, white part only, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1½ litres fish stock
400 g tin diced or peeled tomatoes
1½ teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
200 g fregola
500 g clams
500 g mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
2 blue swimmer crabs, cleaned and cracked or 250 g white fish fillet pieces
400 g king prawns, peeled and deveined, tails left on
To make the stock, wash the bones thoroughly to remove any blood. Heat a large stockpot and add the oil, heat for a few minutes and then add the onion, leek and fennel. Cook until the onion starts to turn translucent. Add the fish bones and the wine, and cook until the wine starts to boil. Add the water, lemon peel, parsley stalks and bay leaves. Bring to the boil and then reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. Use a spoon to remove the scum from the surface. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. The stock will keep refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 3 months.
Zest the limes and put the zest aside for later. Squeeze the limes and pour the juice into a bowl, and add the saffron threads to infuse. Put aside. Heat the oil in a heavy-based pot over a medium heat. Add the leek and fennel, cook for 3 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a further 3 minutes. Add the fish stock, tomatoes and seasoning, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the fregola. Cook for five minutes and then add the seafood. Place the lid on and cook for a further five minutes, or until the mussels have opened and the prawns and crab are cooked. Add the lime juice, saffron threads and zest, and gently stir. If you’ve used fish, be careful not to break up the fish pieces.
Unlike mainland Italy, Sardinians are known for serving seafood dishes with cheese. When serving, you may like to finely grate some pecorino or parmesan cheese over the seafood and finish with fennel fronds.