I tend to get sidetracked by favorite beans such as cannellini or pintos or black beans, which means that I all but neglect the chickpea. Yet the chickpea has excellent flavor (lively and fresh) and texture (neither creamy nor floury), and its versatility across cultures is remarkable. How many of those other beans are equally at home in cuisines along both shores of the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to Tel Aviv and back to Tangier — plus all the way east to South Asia? (The obvious answer is none, because among them only chickpeas are “old world” legumes, going back to prehistory in the Middle East.)
In Barcelona, Jackie and I ate two dishes featuring chickpeas. One, callos de ternera con capipota y garbanzos at the excellent restaurant Fonda Gaig, combined them with a rich, lip-smacking and surprisingly elegant stew of calf’s tripe, head and feet. I wish I had some offal in the house so that I could make it right now, but it’s going to have to wait.
The other chickpea dish we had, at a branch of the group of tapas bars called Taller de Tapas (The Tapas Workshop), requires no special shopping — and is less likely to raise eyebrows around the dinner table. It was basically spinach and chickpeas, with a little pancetta (or its Catalan equivalent, cansalada), onion and garlic. It was one of those dishes that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. This, in part, was because the garlic and chickpeas were both lightly browned — a little caramelized but not crusty. It was served in a tapa portion, but with a bigger plate and a slice of bread, it could easily have been dinner.
And the day after we got back from our trip, that’s just what it was.
The new Catalan cookbook I bought in Barcelona said the dish could be made with Swiss chard instead of spinach, which was lucky because I couldn’t find any spinach that wasn’t slimy and disgusting. (It was a holiday Monday.) The nice Swiss chard in the vegetable store was the broad-stemmed variety, so I stripped the leaves off the stems, washed them thoroughly and blanched them for just a minute in boiling salted water before chilling them in a cold-water bath and squeezing out as much water as I could. (The stems I also blanched and put in the fridge for another meal — an advantage of broad-stem chard.) If you use spinach, remove only huge stems — or none at all — before blanching for mere seconds and proceeding as I did with the chard.
I chopped the leaves roughly — there were about two cups’ worth — and I drained about the same volume of cooked chickpeas from a batch that I’d soaked overnight and simmered earlier in the day. (Yes, of course, you can use canned, but be sure to rinse and drain them thoroughly.) Then I cut a little pancetta — 1 1/2 ounces — into small strips and put them in a pan with olive oil to render down over low heat. I spooned out some of the fat and added half a medium onion cut into thin slices; this, I salted and peppered.
When it was just starting to take on some color, I stirred in two large cloves of garlic, cut into chunky sticks — you want discernible, eatable pieces. Stirring from time to time, I kept watch over this mixture, and when the garlic was thoroughly cooked and beginning to turn golden, I added the drained chickpeas and raised the heat to a strong medium.
The goal here was to just — just — start to brown the cooked chickpeas, which is not the official Catalan practice, but which was done to good effect at Taller de Tapas. This entailed, first, chasing off the chickpeas’ surface moisture, so the process took a while, and Jackie and I were mindful to have a bottle of (Spanish) wine open to keep us busy. Eventually, after 10 minutes or more, I had nice golden garlic and slightly (but not evenly) golden chickpeas, so I added the greens and moved them around with a spoon until they were hot. I checked for salt (of course, more was needed), drizzled with good olive oil and served.
There were no herbs and no spices apart from pepper: just a homey dish of greens and beans that tasted of greens and beans, magnified. As I said, we ate it with bread as our dinner; if you wanted, you could serve it as a side dish or first course. Or you could add more of the chickpea cooking liquid (or stock) and turn it into a soup. And you could absolutely leave out the pancetta and jack up the olive oil, yielding a dish that would give veganism a good name.