Rachel Roddy cooks chickpeas
This autumn, during a train journey from London to Whitstable in search of lunch, the best cook I know told me one of his great pleasures is a tin of marrowfat peas, reheated thoroughly, then seasoned with white pepper and a few shakes of Sarson’s malt vinegar. His description was so good, inducing such nostalgia for my granny’s pub, and fish and chips surrounded by warm newspaper, that I subsequently found myself paying the damn luggage supplement in order to bring a tin and a bottle back to Rome.
Then there is the friend who once told me of her affection for a tin of cannellini beans, warmed with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon eaten with cold mozzarella. Or the man who told me of his devotion to baked beans perked-up with Tabasco and eaten, with (but not on) heavily buttered toast, on a tea-towel, on his lap while watching TV. Tins of beans, it seems, are private pleasures, and not just for speed. Add to this my partner’s love of any beans warmed and mixed with short pasta and my own of tinned chickpeas warmed with olive oil, lemon and loads of black pepper, then mashed with a fork and eaten straight out of the small pan with the slightly melted handle.
Italian call chickpeas ceci, which comes from the Latin Cicer arietinum, because each pea is reminiscent of a ram’s (Aries) head. They remind me of a plump hazelnut in a pointy hat. Chickpeas hold their own best in a tin, and I feel much the same way about them as my younger self did about cigarettes: if I didn’t have at least one pack standing by, I was twitchy. I also hoard dried chickpeas, for as useful as tinned ones may be, soaking and cooking your own is the way to get superb-tasting chickpeas with that unique and nourishing nutty flavour. What’s more, there is the cooking liquid, cloudy with the starch and goodness – therefore flavour and substance – that has seeped from the chickpeas as they simmered.
Opinions about how long you should soak chickpeas before cooking varies dramatically. In her masterful book of Jewish food, Claudia Roden suggests one hour is enough, but notes that you can leave them overnight. Marcella Hazan also recommends overnight soaking. In Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces and Shapes, Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen Fant are emphatic that 24 hours are required. And Jane Grigson – also Enzo and Lina who run a stall here on Testaccio market – let their chickpeas soak for 48 hours – two whole days and nights of plumping until there is not a wrinkle in sight. Were my Grandma Roddy still here, she would have taken her “always on the safe side” lead from Jane and Lina, adding another few hours “just to be sure” – then marvelled at the sprouts.
Simmering times are equally varied, ranging from a swift 45 minutes to a lounging six hours (the chickpeas’ size and age makes a huge difference). In other parts of my life, such variations would be tiresome. However, when it comes to food writing and recipes, I enjoy these dramatic shifts in much the same way I enjoy the opinionated discussions that erupt spontaneously in Italian markets about those best methods and timings: “Two hours? Gesù, Giuseppe e Maria – you need two days!” As is so often the case, the answer is somewhere in between an hour and two days, trying and tasting, knowing your chickpeas. I have settled upon a 24-hour soak, which means about an hour and a quarter simmer until tender. And if you don’t have time, there are always tins.
Today’s recipe comes from Patience Gray’s Honey From A Weed, a book I have been cooking from with renewed joy since reading Adam Federman’s biography of Gray’s remarkable life. The recipe, originally from Catalonia, begins in much the same way as most recipes for braised chickpeas or soup
do, in that you add cooked chickpeas to aromatic vegetables – in this case onion, tomato and parsley – along with some of the cooking water. The uniqueness of this recipe is that you also add a finely pounded mixture of almonds and garlic called picada. This marvellous addition both thickens and lends the most delicious aroma and flavour to the stew. It is a dish to serve as is, with cheese and bread, or on top of rice or couscous. I can imagine it going well with braised neck or roast lamb too. It is good to be back.
Soaking and cooking your own chickpeas is the way to get that unique and nourishing nutty flavour
Cook’s tip The recipe works well with cannellini beans. And you could always add a little rosemary or chilli to the picada.