A Tour of the Mediterranean, Courtesy of Chickpeas and Other Travelers
After a quick trip to the market for one special ingredient, I took a culinary trip around the Mediterranean. I didn’t pack a suitcase, find my passport or spend hours searching for a good deal on an airplane ticket. The special ingredient, chickpea flour, is also called besan. Treats from the Mediterranean — calentita, panisses, farinata, socca, cecina, faina, carrara cecina and torta di ceci — all begin with a batter made with the four ingredients: chickpea flour, olive oil, salt and water. Here’s how:
1 cup cold water
1 cup chickpea flour
1½ Tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
I put the water into a bowl and slowly poured in the chickpea flour while stirring constantly with a whisk. When the batter was smooth, I stirred in the oil and salt and set it aside for an hour. While the chickpea flour absorbed the water and the batter developed flavor, I considered my options.
I could bake the batter in a lightly oiled, 10-inch cast iron skillet in a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes, until it was brown and had crisp edges. Served without any toppings, it would be calentita, the national dish of Gibraltar.
I could cook the batter on top of the stove, in a blisteringly hot cast iron skillet, made slippery with a tablespoon of oil, for two minutes on each side. Topped with bits of sun-dried tomato and black olives and a sprinkle of fresh thyme, I’d have socca as it’s served along the Ligurian Sea in Nice. Replacing the tomatoes and olives with marinated artichokes, fried whitebait fish or cooked onions would transport socca to Genoa and on to Pisa.
If I left the batter overnight, skimmed the foam from it before pouring it into a shallow pan and baking it in a hot oven, I’d have torta di ceci. It’s served with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt in Livorno, on the Tuscan coast. Any of the chickpea flatbreads can be served either hot from the oven or at room temperature. They are gluten-free, nut-free and vegan, making tasty and healthy finger food.
But, after miles of thought, I ended my culinary trip at home in the Upper Valley by making panisses. No, I hadn’t lost my culinary compass. Panisses do come from the Mediterranean coast, but it’s a local food for me because the first time I tasted panisses, they were called chickpea fries and served with a burger in a Vermont restaurant. Here’s how I made them:
I made a double batch of the basic batter with two cups of chickpea flour, two cups of water, three tablespoons of olive oil and a teaspoon of kosher salt. I poured the batter into a medium saucepan and cooked it, stirring constantly, over medium heat for about five minutes. When it had thickened and resembled thick polenta, I poured it into a 12-by-17 inch glass pan lined with plastic wrap, making a layer that was about half an inch thick.
After cooling for an hour, it had solidified. I tipped it out of the pan onto a cutting board and cut it into fry shaped pieces that were three inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide.
I cooked the “fries,” in batches, in a half an inch of hot canola oil, until they were brown and crispy. It took about five minutes. The fries need gentle handling, so I didn’t crowd the pan. I knew the oil was hot enough when tiny bubbles formed around the end of a dry, wooden chopstick dipped into the oil.
I drained the golden panisses on a paper towel, seasoned them with kosher salt and dusted half of the fries with chili powder and the other half with a sprinkle of ground cumin. My husband Charles and I enjoyed them as we reminisced about food discoveries we’ve made on our travels.
Chickpeas and chickpea flour are an excellent source of protein, fiber, iron, potassium and B vitamins. I used the rest of the chickpea flour and a few vegetables from the fridge to make a Vermont besan flat bread.
Besan Flat Bread
1 cup chickpea flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1½ cups water
1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cup cauliflower florets, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons olive oil
I put the chickpea flour and salt into a bowl and stirred constantly with a whisk, as I slowly added water, to make a slurry with the consistency of thin pancake batter. I made the batter in the morning, covered it and left on the counter to rest. When I was ready to bake it, I put the onion, cauliflower and olive oil into a 10-inch cast iron skillet that had been pre-heated to 450 degrees in the oven. After the vegetables had cooked in the oven for two minutes, I gave them a quick stir, poured the batter in and returned the skillet to the oven. In 20 minutes, the bread was brown and the crisp edge had pulled away from the pan. I used a spatula to lift it out onto a cutting board. I sprinkled it with a pinch of sea salt, and let it cool for a couple of minutes before I cut it into 12 wedges. Served with a green salad, it made a satisfying vegetarian, gluten-free, delicious dinner.
I call it Vermont flat bread because I use bits of whatever vegetables I find in my fridge. Scallions, shallots or chives can be substituted for the onions, canola oil can replace the olive oil, and broccoli or cooked potato can replace the cauliflower. To vary the flavor, I add either a tablespoon of fresh rosemary, a teaspoon of black mustard seeds or a sprinkle of ground cumin to the sliced vegetables.
Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at www.carolregbert.com.