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Merven's pasta e ceci

Yum yum

So, what with today being the Epiphany, the holidays are finally over and it’s back to work tomorrow. That being the case, Merven’s Kitchen decided to come up with some comfort food, mostly for the benefit of myself, but also for herself, albeit she went back to work last week. Comfort is in short supply these days and will probably be taxed soon, so the more the merrier.

Today’s dish, then, is Pasta e Ceci (pronounced “cheh-chee” with the accent on the “cheh”), or Pasta with Chickpeas. Now the chickpea is a staple from the Mediterranean to India, but has never been a star in Northern Europe, though they were not unknown. They are the main ingredient in well-known dishes like hummus and felafel, but are also used in soups in Latin countries and of course are a regular in dozens of Indian recipes, under the name of chana. The Indians, amongst others, also make flour from chickpeas which can be used to make a kind of bread or also batter. Healthwise, they are a great source of protein and phosphorus and contain very little fat. Hope that makes you feel better when you tuck into hearty portions of my Pasta e Ceci.

Chickpeas are wont to appear in 2 different guises: dried and canned. The former are raw and as hard as a very hard thing. They need a good long soak in cold water (no salt!) – at least 12 hours. This helps to reduce one of the more unfortunate effects of all legumes: flatus. Once you’ve soaked the little blighters, given them a rinse and then put them in a large pot with LOTS of water (no salt!!) and bring them to the boil. Once bubbling away mightily, reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour. After that, you’re on your own: test one to see if it meets with your own stringent personal requirements for a chickpea, if you have any. Too crunchy? Continue to simmer for another 15 mins. Just right? Switch off and drain. Too mushy? Like it or lump it, as the mammy used to say.

As far as the canned ones are concerned, they’re already cooked and are stored in either water or brine, the former being preferable. Whatever the case, drain and rinse them before using – you don’t know where they’ve been.

Finally, you can store dried chickpeas in a cool, dark environment for a year or so. And if you cook more than you need, you can quite happily freeze the cooked chickpeas or keep them in the fridge for a few days, covered. Or make hummus. Or shoot them at the neighbour’s cat. The world’s your huître!

Ingredients:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 small stick of celery
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 100 g pancetta (plain or smoked)
  • rosemary – 1 sprig of fresh, or 1 level tbsn of dried
  • 300 g cooked chickpeas
  • 200 g tomato sauce (passato) or canned chopped tomatoes
  • vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper
  • 400 g pasta – choose from lumachine, conchiglie, pipette or pipe rigate

Method:

The carrot (topped, tailed and shaved), celery (including leaf), onion (topped, tailed and stripped of its nasty outer layer) and the garlic (ditto) all need to be very finely chopped. The best way to do this is to julienne them first – cut into short, thin strips – and then cut crosswise. For buddha’s sake, mind your fingertips here – I have no feeling left in the tip of my left index finger for the number of times I’ve sliced it up.

Once the chopping is done, throw it into a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot (your “J-Lo pot”, no kitchen should be without one). Add the oil, turn on the heat and start gently frying. This base should be allowed to sweat for about 5 minutes or so.

In the meantime, remove the needles from your sprig of rosemary. A handy way to do this is loosely grip the stem at the top and draw your hand down to the base, watching the needles fly off. Alternatively, a young child can be enlisted to pluck them off individually. Free entertainment for hours. Take your liberted rosemary needles and chop them as finely as you can – a mezzaluna (or hachoir) knife is ideal. Add the results to the stuff in the pot. Your kitchen should now smell like it should be in the Cote d’Azur.

Grab your pancetta and (quickly) cut it into small cubes, adding it too into the pot. Give it all a good mix. The mixture should gently fry for about 15 mins in total.

Now take your chickpeas and fire them into the pot, stirring them into the fried mixture and bring them up to heat. Once they’re warmed thoroughly, pour in as much vegetable stock as it takes to cover the chickpeas (it’s best if your stock is already warm). Then add your tomato. Personally I prefer chopped tomato in this dish, but passata works just as well. And if you like, you can even omit the tomato altogether! Incredible, eh?

Anyway, once everything is in, let it bubble away gently for about 15 mins. In the meantime, fill your big pot for the pasta and set it on the heat. When the water comes to the boil, add a good handful of coarse sea salt and the pasta and cook as per the instructions elsewhere on this site.

After the 5 mins are up, remove about a third of the chickpeas with a slotted spoon. You’re going to make a pulp of them and can do it either of 2 ways: shove them into your food processor and watch them dissolve from the comfort and safety of your kitchen stool, or put them into a deep plate and attack them with your potato masher. Personally I prefer the latter as it helps to work off the aggression and I pretend the chickpeas are some of the dickheads I have to put up with. Also, I don’t have a food processor. Which is probably just as well.

The pulped chickpeas should be reunited with their unharmed relatives and heated through. Have a quick taste and see if you need to add salt and pepper. By now your pasta will be cooked and you can drain it. Throw the drained pasta back into its pot and then empty the contents of the J-Lo pot over it, giving it all a good mix around. Serve immediately with a hearty sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano (I’m not showing off my Italian… it’s just that the EU won’t let us say “parmesan” any more).

So there you have it. This is a real country-style dish, filling and satisfying. You can mess around with it, for example with or without the tomato, more or less liquid. Try it with different stocks – using homemade chicken stock, for example, would be a whizz.

If you’re looking for suggestions of something to drink with this, there are a number of options. The quite vivid presence of rosemary means you’ll need something with bite and pungency to it, like a Sauvignon Blanc (preferably from a cooler climate, like France, Italy or New Zealand) or better still a Ribolla from the Friuli region. If you prefer red, try a Schioppettino from the same region. But at a push anything is better than water…