Years ago we moved to standing-rib-roast country for a while, the North Shore of Chicago, and before I understood the native customs I asked for a can of chickpeas in a posh food market.
The clerk looked as though I had uttered an obscenity. "Garbanzos," I translated. "Ceci," I tried. Hopeless, I learned. This market carried nothing that was not familiarly American, and chickpeas appear only in the more rakish cuisines . . . the Near East and around the Mediterranean where people eat strange things. Squid and octopus. Little birds and rose petals.
The entire country has become braver about food, but chickpeas still wait to be discovered with enthusiasm. They are still woefully lacking in the indexes of new cookbooks. Is it their looks, a knobby beige exterior, that keep them off the importantly garnished plates?
Despite being lumped among legumes, and even after being soaked and boiled unmercifully, chickpeas never seem to lose their individuality.
This became obvious the first time I made a dish called "A Thousand Things," which is a fanciful rendition of pasta e fagioli. A half cup each of dried legumes, including chickpeas, are soaked and simmered to look like a thousand things in a soup plate.
The lentils and beans absorbed the flavor of the stock in a reasonable length of time, but the chickpeas defied the tooth for hours while the beans disintegrated around them.
Most commonly, chickpeas are found in 20-ounce cans (a little over two cups when drained), enough to strew decoratively over a mixed salad or include in a minestrone with lots of other ingredients. But by the standards of countries who value chickpeas, two cups is skimpy.
Greek cooks know how to use them lavishly -- hot or cold, preparing them as they might prepare white beans by braising them with onion and garlic, tomato and mint and finally olive oil for depth of flavor. In those restaurants that let the patrons into the kitchen to point to the dinner of their choice, a large pot of chickpeas is familiar, ready to provide a side dish with roast chicken or stewed lamb.
While Middle Eastern recipes are most familiar, other methods of cooking them exist in the nooks and crannies of regional cooking around the world.
Pasteles, for instance, could only happen in the Caribbean, a kind of tamale wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf, the outside paste made with plantain and local root vegetables rather than corn. By the time they are cooked, the filling has relaxed into a mush, except for the chickpeas.
In Spain they appear in omelets after they have been saute'ed to a crisp golden brown. Their appearance in North African stews could remind us to include chickpeas in ours, for in addition to their charming texture they provide high-quality protein.
Canned chickpeas are good to have on hand for sudden spurts of invention. Their texture varies, however, and each processor has his own idea of how soft they should be. Some of the nutty flavor is also gone as they languish in the liquid. But for a quick batch of hummus or felafel, canned chickpeas perform quite well.
They are best bought dried and simmered at home. You can halt the cooking at the softness of your choice. An hour and a half is usually plenty, and two hours will bring them to the pliant docility of the canned variety.
One cup of dried chickpeas will yield about 2 1/2 cups to make a superior substitute in recipes that call for "a 20-ounce can of chickpeas." When you are making minestrone, the chickpeas will add more to the soup if you haul out half of them before the pasta is added and run them through a food mill or blender.
1 pound dried chickpeas
1 tablespoon salt in 1/4 cup water
Soak chickpeas overnight in 2 quarts of water, or bring to a boil with the water in a saucepan, boil for 2 minutes and set aside for 1 hour. Simmer them gently for 1 1/2 hours, adding more water as needed. Dissolve salt in the water, add to drained chickpeas and toss to distribute the salt. Heat oven to 400 degrees and pour chickpeas into a shallow baking pan large enough to hold them in only one layer. Bake until golden brown, shaking the pan often to turn the peas, until they are dry and crunchy, about 30 minutes. Serve warm as a snack, or store in a covered container and reheat before serving. Canned chickpeas just don't work for this recipe.
A THOUSAND THINGS (6 servings)
1/2 cup each dried chickpeas, pink beans, white beans, lentils
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 cups shredded green cabbage
Salt and pepper
1/2 pound ditali or other short macaroni
Grated parmesan cheese
Wash and pick over the legumes and soak separately in 1 1/2 cups water each for 24 hours. You may substitute any beans that you have on hand, but black beans will have to be cooked separately. In a 3- or 4-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil and gently saute' the onion, carrot, garlic and celery until soft, but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add rosemary and cook 30 seconds. Add all the beans, their soaking water plus enough water to come about 1 inch over the surface of the beans. Stir in the shredded cabbage, bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In another pot, cook the pasta in plenty of salted water until al dente. Drain and add to the beans. Serve in warm soup plates and pass the cheese and parsley, which have been tossed together.
SPANAKORIZO WITH CHICKPEAS (6 servings)
2 16-ounce packages fresh spinach or 2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped or 1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup water
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup raw long-grain rice
1 cup dried chickpeas, cooked until very tender, or 20-ounce can chickpeas, drained
1 lemon, cut in wedges
If fresh spinach is used, remove tough stems, wash and steam in a covered saucepan for 1 minute. Squeeze dry and chop finely. If frozen chopped spinach is used, defrost and squeeze dry. In a large skillet, saute' chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until onion is soft, but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomato and saute' for 5 minutes. If tomato paste is used, stir it into the water first. Add spinach and water to the skillet and salt and pepper liberally. Sprinkle rice over the spinach, cover tightly and simmer until rice is tender, 20 or 25 minutes. Stir in chickpeas and heat 5 minutes. Toss ingredients to distribute the chickpeas and serve immediately with lemon wedges.