Michele Benigna is a visual effects artist by day, drummer by night, and loves to cook whenever he can. Born and raised in Northern Italy, he has an extensive knowledge of Italian cuisine and in Aotearoa has started a boutique pizza project called Flour and Gold. He competed in MasterChef NZ 2022.
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Wellington’s seafood industry has a rich Italian history, particularly in Island Bay which has been dubbed “Little Italy.” In the 1890s people migrating from Italy, particularly from Massa Lubrense and Stromboli, formed a fishing settlement there.
Since 1933 Island Bay’s Italian community have celebrated their fishing history with the Blessing of the Boats ceremony each February. Clergy and onlookers wish the vessels a plentiful catch. This dish blends Michele’s Italian heritage with the local produce of Wellington. “Fregola is a great way to bring all these different elements together,” says Michele. “Summer vegetables like eggplants and courgettes, and of course the beautiful local seafood we have available here in Wellington. It celebrates summer in a beautiful way.”
10–15 green clams 7 green-lipped mussels 1 fillet of gurnard (no skin) 1 glass of white wine 250 grams of Fregola Sarda (Sardinian pasta) 2 medium-size courgettes 8 cherry tomatoes 1 eggplant 1 clove of garlic 1 red chilli (optional) Italian parsley (stalks and leaves) thyme olive oil
For the stock 500ml water 1 carrot, roughly chopped 1 onion, roughly chopped 1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped 10 grams of salt
Make a light vegetable stock by putting cold water in a pan, with the salt, carrot, celery and onion. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 mins.
In the meantime open the mussels and the clams: heat olive oil, parsley stalks and garlic in a pan until sizzling, then add the seafood and cover immediately with a lid. After a minute, add the wine and cover again, letting the steam from the wine do its job.
Keep an eye on the clams and mussels. They won’t open all at once, so remove from the pan as they open, otherwise you will end up with some rubbery and some undercooked ones.
Set the opened seafood aside.
Cut the courgettes and eggplants into little cubes and the cherry tomatoes into quarters.
In a casserole, sweat the chilli and a clove of garlic in a good glug of olive oil, then add the eggplant, courgette, and cherry tomatoes.
When the eggplant mixture starts to soften, add the fregola with a pinch of salt. It’s important to season step by step, building layers of flavours.
Let the fregola soak up flavour from the vegetables and then add the stock. Add roughly 250 ml to start with, then keep adding it as the fregola cooks and absorbs the liquid. Cover with a lid, and let it lightly simmer for about 15 mins.
When the fregola starts to soften but still has some bite, add the open mussels and clams (take most out of their shells, leaving just 2 or 3 in shells for decoration).
Add the chopped parsley leaves and mix in.
Take the fillet of gurnard and lay it on top of everything. It will cook with the heat from the fregola. Cover with the lid.
After five mins turn the heat off; keep the lid on and let it rest for 5 more mins off the heat.