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Fregola & Spinach

Posted Aug 25 2008 2:51pm

It’s a cold, rainy day here in East Texas; I couldn’t be happier, because I love being inside and cozy.

I wasn’t as thrilled with the forecast when I awoke to my vibrating alarm this morning at 5:20 (I teach a 6 am exercise class Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). But once I got my semi-comatose self out of bed, dressed, and arrived at the gym, I was marginally more awake and happy to be up.

My favorite part of these early morning workouts is that, by the time 7:30 rolls around and I am fully (well, mostly) conscious, it’s all over—it’s almost like I dream myself through the workout (I hope my class participants aren’t reading this). Sometimes, hours later, I have to remind myself that I really did get up and teach; the sore muscles—and later, paycheck—are my only indicators.

Now I’m home, showered, re-dressed, caffeinated, snug in my kitchen (well, at the moment, office) and ready to enjoy the wet day—the grey makes me feel like I am back home in the SF Bay Area. Sigh. Some tea is brewing, baby is sleeping, and I only have to step outside the house one more time today to run some errands and teach pilates. It’s a full day of recipe testing (I’m working on some recipes for my new book) and, like millions of people everywhere, I’ve spent some time deciding what’s for dinner.

The answer? Frozen spinach .

Don’t worry, that’s not the end of it. I recognize that when stated so simply, the menu sounds about as appealing as damp socks. But when said spinach is combined into an easy, warming pasta dish with cheese, spice, and a hint of heat, it’s fluffy slippers all the way.

I’m using fregola as my pasta of choice, but as I note in the recipe, you can (as I have in the past), use just about any small pasta shape you prefer (or happen to have on hand).

Fregola looks a lot like Mediterranean/Israeli couscous. My husband argues that the medium size (it also comes in a small size) looks EXACTLY like the aforementioned couscous, but there is a subtle visible difference: fregola is slightly more pellet-like, whereas as the cooked couscous more closely resembles a pearl.

Fregola hails from the island of Sardinia (about 120 miles west of the Italian peninsula) and is handmade with course semolina and water and then rubbed to form the pasta pieces. Another aspect of fregola that differs from Mediterranean couscous (and other pastas) is that, following the formation and drying steps, it is toasted to impart a slightly nutty flavor. Once cooked, it has a notably chewy—not gummy—texture. I have never seen it at a regular grocery store, but I have found it at Whole Foods and (if you are from Texas) Central Market . It’s also readily available by mail order (it’s worth trying—it is a bit different).

But yes, yes, yes, use any small pasta that you happen to have for the short run, because you will want to make this dish—everything else in it is widely available, and you may already have the items in your refrigerator and pantry.

This marks the start of a few days of spinach revelry (when did you last see those two words together in print?). Spinach is so very nutritious—worth reveling over—and buying and using it in frozen form is convenient and economical. It’s also in very good taste, too—even Gourmet and Bon Appetit use it in recipes from time to time.

If you’re wondering how frozen spinach compares nutritionally with fresh spinach, take a look at the comparison sheet on the following link:

Spinach loses little in the freezing process, and in fact retains a greater proportion of Vitamin A than fresh. I came across a study (from the Journal of Food Science —one of the very top food science journals) in which the food researchers (from Penn State) found that, in general, frozen spinach retains a stronger nutritional profile than its fresh equivalent. Here’s the complete citation if you are interested in reading more:

Retention of Folate, Carotenoids, and Other Quality Characteristics in Commercially Packaged Fresh Spinach , by S. Pandrangi and L.F. LaBorde.

Journal of Food Science , Volume 69, Issue 9, Page C702-C707, Dec 2004, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2621.2004.tb09919.x

Now go and eat your spinach and be strong to the finish—Popeye really did know what he was talking about.

Fregola with Spinach & Feta

You can use just about any small-shape pasta here, including (but not limited to) orzo, Mediterranean couscous, ditalini, or small shells.

8 ounces medium size fregola (or any small shape pasta)
1 and 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes

4 green onions, chopped
1 10-ounce package chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 ounces feta, crumbled (about 2/3 cup)

Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until al dente; reserve 1/3 cup cooking liquid then drain well in a coarse-mesh sieve. Transfer to a bowl and keep warm, covered.

Meanwhile, heat oil and butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, green onions and hot pepper flakes and sauté, stirring occasionally, until garlic is golden, about 2 minutes. Add spinach and nutmeg and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 4 minutes.

Toss pasta with spinach mixture, feta, lemon juice and lemon zest until combined (add some of the warm pasta liquid if desired). Season with salt and pepper. Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition per Serving:

Calories 356; Fat 13.8g (poly 1.2g, mono 6.1g, sat 5.6g); Protein 12.3g; Cholesterol 26.8mg; Carbohydrate 46.1g; Sodium 296.5 mg)

(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1 )
Camilla's Note: I know this one is a little bit higher in fat, but mostly good fat from the olive oil--it's worth it!
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