It’s official, I’m obsessed with tomatoes; can’t stop buying them (and really, what better way to help support local farmers?).  Tomatoes, so incredibly beautiful in all their various shapes, sizes, and colors.  Especially love the small grape varieties — bursting, literally, with flavor.


What to do with all those wonderful tomatoes?  The options are limitless.  Today’s post is all about simple, rustic Italian fare; what’s not to like?  Just missing a minor detail — a view of the Tuscan countryside — along with an unlimited flow of vino rosso and olio verde.

Panzanella (Bread Salad)…

Panzanella, or Tuscan bread salad, is a great way to incorporate all those beautiful tomatoes, along with the rest of summer’s bounty.  A traditional panzanella calls for ripe tomatoes tossed with cubed bread — preferably stale (or toasted until dry and crispy if need be) — dressed with robust extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, and garnished with basil.  A panzanella purist I am not.  There’s way too much good produce out there at the moment such that some of it found its way into this version.

Panzanella – Bread Salad

2 cups firm whole wheat, country bread, cut into 1-inch squares
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds of tomatoes, cut into small wedges (1 tomato reserved)
Handful of sweet grape tomatoes
1 red pepper (or purple pepper, how cool are those?)
1 yellow pepper
2 small or 1 large cucumber (preferably with small seeds, e.g., Persian, Armenian, Suyo Long) 1/2-inch dice
1/2 medium red onion, sliced (soak in cold water for about 10 minutes and drain; helps to remove the sharpness)
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Fresh ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:

1 garlic clove
2 to 3 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon capers
1/4 extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Toss the bread cubes with the olive oil and toast under the broiler until crispy.  Transfer to a large bowl.  Puree one of the tomatoes in a food processor or blender, and add the pureed tomato to the bowl with the bread cubes and a little salt.  Toss and let soak for at least 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, roast the peppers on an open flame until charred on all sides.  Place in a paper bag for 10 to 15 minutes (to help loosen the skins).  Scrape the charred skin, remove the seeds, and slice into strips.

Mash the garlic, anchovies, and capers using the back of a spoon, mortar and pestle, or food processor.  Whisk in the olive oil and vinegar.

In a large serving bowl, mix the bread, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and basil.  Season with fresh ground black pepper.  Toss with the vinaigrette and serve.

Fregula or Fregola…

Next, fregula (sometimes spelled fregola) sarda with clams and mussels.  Fregula is a type of Sardinian pasta made with semolina flour, rolled into small balls and then toasted in the oven.  It’s reminiscent of  Israeli couscous, but with a much nuttier flavor.  You can make fregula by hand; yes, I’ve tried, but you’re probably better off buying it premade.  It’s a bit tedious to roll out all those little balls by hand.  Finding fregula in the United States can be a bit of a challenge; a specialty market is your best bet.

Fregula is a rather new, but welcome discovery for me.  First encountered fregula neither in Sardinia (have yet to go, but it’s on my list) nor an Italian restaurant, but at yet another standout Chicago restaurant, Nightwood.  Nightwood’s take was a spring, vegetarian version using first of the season peas.  Nightwood chef Jason Vincent makes his fregula by hand (or as he later revealed, has his interns do so).  But, today is about summer tomatoes — two cups worth go into this version — along with homemade shrimp stock (more on this in a bit), clams, and mussels.  The juices from the shellfish, along with the tomatoes and shrimp stock, combine to form a scrumptious broth.  Slurp away!

Fregula Sarda with Clams and Mussels

Serves 4 as first course or 2 as main course

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups chopped tomatoes (canned or fresh)
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley plus extra for garnish
1 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 pound mussels
2 to 2 1/2 cups of shrimp/fish/chicken/vegetable stock
1 cup fregula
Sea salt to taste
Pinch toasted saffron (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot.  Add the garlic and cook over moderately high heat for about 30 seconds.  Add the chopped tomatoes, a pinch of hot pepper flakes, and black pepper to taste.  Cook until the garlic and tomatoes soften, about 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the wine and parsley, and simmer for approximately 5 minutes.

Place the clams and mussels in a single layer on top of the mixture and cover tightly.  Cook over moderately high heat until the clams and mussels open.  Discard any clams or mussels that do not open.  As they open, scoop the clams and mussels into a large bowl (the mussels should open within a few minutes, the clams slightly longer).

Once all the clams and mussels are cooked, add 2 cups of stock to the tomatoes.  Add the fregula and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until toothsome, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Add a little more stock if needed (it should be a little soupy).

Adjust the black pepper and hot pepper seasonings.  Add salt to taste.  Put the clams and mussels back into the broth to reheat for a few seconds and then spoon into shallow bowls. Sprinkle with additional chopped parsley and serve immediately with freshly warmed toasted bread (a little aioli would be a nice addition).

I like to save all my shrimp shells (heads and tails too); Store them in a zip lock bag in the freezer until you accumulate enough (sometimes it takes several months) to make a stock.  Once you have enough shells, shrimp stock is a breeze to make and it adds a depth of flavor to your seafood dishes.

So, next time you are shopping for shrimp and are contemplating between already peeled or shells on, go for the ones with the shells on (heads too, if you can find them).

Shrimp Stock

Makes about 4 1/2 cups stock 
1 tablespoon olive oil
shrimp shells from 2 to 2 1/2 pounds shrimp
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
2 ribs of celery, including leaves, roughly chopped.
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 quarts of water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Heat the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium.  Add the shrimp shells, onion, carrot, celery, thyme, and bay leaves.  Sauté for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the shrimp shells turn pink and the onions begin to show translucency.  Add the water, salt, and black peppercorns.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer (skim off any foam that rises to the top of your stock).  Simmer 45 minutes to one hour until the stock reduces and is flavorful.

Remove from heat and strain with a fine mesh wire strainer.  For an absolutely clear stock, strain it through several layers of cheesecloth.

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