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Chickpea central

(article, Matthew Card)

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While I’m a huge fan of all legumes — a real mangiafagiolo, or bean eater — I have a soft spot for chickpeas. They are as good whole in sautés or stews as they are puréed in soups or dips, and their starchy, toothsome texture and nutty, earthy flavor is as delicious hot as it is cold.

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In my book, dried chickpeas are a must; canned chickpeas suffice only in an emergency, and only in dishes in which the flavorings are assertive enough to mask the tinny flavor the can bestows upon the chickpeas. 

Dried chickpeas are at their best when they have been soaked overnight, then simmered in fresh water with a few aromatics, such as a quartered onion, broken carrot, celery stalk, handful of garlic cloves, bay leaves, and a sprig or two of thyme and/or parsley. 

When the pot comes to a simmer, skim the scummy foam off the top, reduce to a slow bubble, and cook until just tender — anywhere from 40 minutes to double that, depending on the age of the beans (old beans take longer) and mineral content of the water. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=350 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="A scattering of scallions and a squeeze of lemon provide the finishing touches for a sausage-and-chickpea paella."]

Once the beans are tender, stir in some salt, then store them in the flavorful cooking liquid; stowed in the fridge, they should last for four or five days. 

While purists (such as Paula Wolfert) may peel their chickpeas for the smoothest texture, I find the extra effort unnecessary and tedious. If you must, rub the cooked beans between your hands until they slip their skins; use a strainer to remove the skins without discarding the cooking liquid, which can be used in part or as a replacement for stock in recipes. 

What do I make with chickpeas? Lots of soups, stews, warm and cold salads, and dips — the classic hummus as well as others. Here are three recipes for chickpeas from India, Spain, and the Middle East.

South Indians render all manner of legumes into nutritious dals, or thin vegetable-laced bean purées. My westernized method of making dal out of chickpeas might make Indian cooks cringe, but it’s an easy, one-pan solution to a typically multi-pot endeavor. 

[%image dal float=left width=350 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Serve chickpea dal with crunchy poppadums."]

The chickpeas pair naturally with peppery-sweet garam masala, and a bit of turmeric keeps the color sunny. Blanched mustard greens add valuable nutrition to the dish, and their spicy flavor holds its own against the dal’s other dynamic flavors. Puréeing a portion of the chickpeas serves to thicken the dal (I like mine on the dense side, to scoop up with masala poppadums).

Once you get past the romance and mystery, paella is rice pilaf with a few more ingredients than the basic rendering. And what goes better with rice than beans? Don’t be fooled into thinking paella requires a special pan; a broad skillet works just fine. 

The right rice, however, is a must: search out the starchy Calasparra or Bomba varieties, both short-grain varieties from Spain typically used in paella. (If you can't find these rices locally, order them online at LaTienda.com or The Spanish Table.) In a pinch, Arborio (risotto) rice will work well, too.

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h1. A legume by any other name

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Chickpeas are indeed peas. They're also beans, as the moniker "garbanzo beans" indicates. And sometimes they're called grams, ceci, chana, or Egyptian peas. The Latin name for the legume, Cicer arietinum, means "small ram," which the bumpy little peas sort of resemble.

Like most beans, chickpeas are high in protein and fiber. They can take a while to cook, however, and some people add baking soda to speed up the softening process. Think twice before doing this, however, as baking soda leaches nutrients out of the beans and can alter their flavor.

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The secret to great paella is laying down the base: lots of garlic and sweet onion, plenty of paprika (a mix of regular and smoked if you like), and sufficient fat. Combining a fruity olive oil with the spicy pork fat rendered from the chorizo keeps the paella lighter and cleaner-tasting than using lard alone. 

It’s hard to talk about chickpeas without mentioning hummus, though I like to take a slightly different approach than most. Instead of the traditional tahini, I add whole toasted sesame seeds. These I grind with the garlic (toasted along with the seeds to tame its harsh bite) in the food processor, before adding the chickpeas and remaining flavorings. 

In a nod to the spice blend zatar (sesame seeds, dried thyme, and tart powdered sumac), I add fresh thyme and plenty of lemon juice. And in contrast to most hummus recipes, I recommend withholding the olive oil until the purée is thoroughly blended. Extra-virgin olive oil can “bruise,” or turn bitter, if overprocessed.

These three dishes barely touch upon the ways in which chickpeas can be prepared, so if you’re a mangiafagiolo like me, make chickpeas a steady part of your diet. Use your imagination and experiment; I’m sure you'll invent some new favorite dishes.

p(bio). Matthew Card is a contributing editor to Cook’s Illustrated and writes a monthly column for the Oregonian.


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