Sardinian Clam Soup with Couscous

Zuppa All’oristanese con Vongole e Fregola

On a fine May morning in Sardinia I discovered three wonderful things. We were in Cabras, on the western coast, to have lunch, but we were early, so my husband and I decided to drive to the nearby beach of Is Arutas for a walk that we hoped would stir our becalmed appetites. We went as far as was permitted by car, and began to cross the seemingly scrubby ground that separated us from the beach. I looked down to see that, like a princess in a fairy tale, I was walking over what could have been a tightly woven carpet made of wildflowers unimaginable in their variety and numbers. Approaching the beach, I was startled by its brilliance. When I scooped up a palmful of the “sand” I found spilling from my hand a multitude of minute polished quartz fragments, dazzling in their whiteness. My third discovery was this soup.

Gigi Ledda has a restaurant in Cabras, Sa Funtà, where he cooks only on special order, and since, on any given day, you may be the only customer, it is necessary to let him know at least 24 hours in advance that you are coming. All of the dishes we had that day were new to me, and most had ingredients that I would have difficulty finding in mainland Italy—”the continent,” as Sardinians call it—let alone elsewhere. But the entrancing soup Gigi made with couscous-like nuggets and clams could clearly be replicated anyplace. Aside from procuring those two ingredients, a quick browse through the recipe will reveal that no seafood soup makes such simple demands of its cook.

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Ingredients

  • 3 dozen littleneck clams
  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup couscous (precooked medium-grain semolina)
  • 1 tablespoon very finely chopped garlic
  • 3 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon chopped chili pepper or to taste

Method

  1. Soak the clams in a basin of cold water for 15 minutes, then empty the basin and, under cold running water, scrub the clams vigorously, rubbing one against the other, rinsing them in two or three changes of water.
  2. Choose a skillet or sauté pan that can contain the clams no more than two layers deep. If you don’t have a large enough pan, do half the clams at one time, performing this step in two stages. Put in 3 cups of water, cover the pan, and turn on the heat to high. After 2 or 3 minutes, uncover the pan and turn the clams over, bringing up the ones on the lower level. As they begin to open, remove them from the pan, using a slotted spoon or spatula or tongs, and transfer them to a bowl. Proceed thus until all the clams have opened up and have been put in the bowl. Pour all the liquid remaining in the pan over the clams.
  3. As soon as the clams are cool enough to handle, detach the meat from the shells, putting it in a small bowl and discarding the shells. Slowly pour the juices in the original bowl over the clam meat, tipping the bowl with care so that the sand that has settled on the bottom does not get poured out with the juices. Let the clam meat steep in its liquid for 20 to 30 minutes.
  4. While waiting for the clams to finish steeping, put cup of water in a small saucepan together with a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil, and bring it to a boil. Add the couscous, cover the pan, and remove from heat. After 5 to 6 minutes, uncover the pan and stir the couscous, which is now ready for the soup.
  5. Retrieve the clam meat from the bowl, using a slotted spoon or spatula; chop each piece into four smaller pieces; and put them all back into the bowl for 5 minutes. Working very gently to avoid stirring up any sand that may still be in the juices, retrieve the chopped clam meat, once again using a slotted spoon or spatula, and transfer it to a plate. Line a strainer with a sheet of single-ply paper towel and pour the clam juices through it into a clean bowl.
  6. Put 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the chopped garlic into a medium saucepan and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the garlic, stirring it two or three times, and the instant it becomes colored a very pale gold, add the chopped parsley. Stir once or twice, then add the filtered clam juices. Let the liquid bubble for 1 or 2 minutes, then add the couscous, stirring it thoroughly. When the liquid bubbles again, put in the clam meat and continue cooking for another minute or two. The finished consistency of the soup should be somewhat runny. If you find it becoming too thick, add a little water. Serve piping hot.

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