Paper Chef #7: Seafood Socca with Date-Orange Salad, Spiced Honey Sauce and Crème Fraîche

Seafood Socca with Date-Orange Salad, Spiced Honey Sauce and Crème Fraîche

It’s not often that I run across something on my plate that I’ve never heard of. Maybe while traveling, yes, but certainly not on home turf, where the same basic ingredients get continually rehashed in restaurants across the city. So imagine my great surprise when a recent weekend afternoon found me in a smart local French establishment staring in disbelief at my menu, halfway suspecting a spelling mistake and defensively challenging the waiter: ‘what is that?’ ‘A socca, madam,’ he replied with infinite Gallic graciousness, ‘is a chickpea pancake from southern France. It is very good.’ I squinted at him for a moment before deciding that he was probably telling the truth, at least the part about it being good, because after all, he did have a French accent. ‘Okay,’ I conceded, ‘If you say it’s good I’ll have it.’

The socca that appeared on my plate was a thick circle about six inches in diameter, crusty and golden on the outside and studded with large succulent mussels. The pancake itself was nutty and moist with a subtle whisper of fennel, and it came crowned with a peppery tangle of frisee salad and a pungent drizzle of fresh basil pesto. And he hadn’t been lying – it was good. So good, in fact, that I raced to the internet as soon as we were home, itchy to fill in my socca gaps.

It turns out that my waiter had been correctly informed, and that the socca is indeed from southern France – Nice, to be exact, though a similar version is also made in Marseille. It is something like a very rustic crêpe which traditionally contains only chickpea flour, water, salt and olive oil, and can still be found in those places sold from mobile socca carts equipped with charcoal ovens. You buy it by the slice, and eat it out of paper cones sprinkled with pepper. How I’d never heard of it is still a mystery, considering my bursting French recipe collection, but there was no time to waste trying to figure that out – I had to try making it myself.

I suspected that the socca I had tasted at the restaurant was a far cry from traditional. Nevertheless, I had been so smitten by it that I decided to try to replicate something similar, and from this attempt comes my first entry for Tomatilla’s monthly Paper Chef competition (ingredients dates, honey, buttermilk and eggs), and which is being judged by the lovely and talented Julie of A Finger in Every Pie. I started with the idea of a thick, fennel-y seafood socca like I had tasted, and lightened it with eggs and buttermilk. The result was fantastic, very moist and chewy. I topped it with an improvised date-orange salad with red onion and arugula, and drizzled the whole thing with a reduction of honey, spices and chicken stock. The crowning glory, just to reaffirm my commitment to the competition ingredients in case anybody doubted it, was a homemade crème fraîche, soured with buttermilk. It was a very interesting combination of tastes, both sweet and salty, and made a tasty, albeit unusual, Sunday dinner.

So, socca, welcome to the family. Despite your newcomer status, I’m certain you’ll be making frequent and much-anticipated appearances at our table.

Seafood Socca with Date-Orange Salad, Spiced Honey Sauce and Crème Fraîche
Serves: 6

For the soccas:
2 cups chickpea flour (also called gram flour, or garbanzo flour)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 cups fresh or frozen mixed seafood (I bought a mix that included mussels, shrimp and calamari)

For the date-orange salad:
6-8 medjool dates, pitted and chopped
2 oranges, peeled, and segments cut into pieces
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup arugula (rocket) leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
salt and pepper

For the spiced honey sauce:
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/3 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon hot chile powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar

For the creme fraiche:
1 cup heavy or double cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk

To make your own crème fraîche, you’ll have to start the night before. Add the buttermilk to the heavy cream and shake together in a clean jar. Close the jar, and leave out a room temperature overnight (and depending on how long it takes to set, up to 24 hours). When it has thickened, put in the refrigerator.

For the soccas, whisk the flour, salt and baking soda together in a bowl. Add the eggs, buttermilk and oil and whisk until smooth. Stir in the fennel and the seafood. Coat a 12-inch skillet (preferably a non-stick one) with oil so that it covers the bottom. Heat the pan in the oven at 450F until the oil is hot and bubbling, about 4 minutes (if using a cast iron skillet, it may take longer). Take the pan out of the oven, pour a large scoopful of batter in and swirl around so that it covers the entire bottom of the pan, rearranging the seafood so that they are evenly spaced. Cook in the oven for about 7-9 minutes, or until golden brown on top and firm throughout. Remove from oven, transfer to a plate, and repeat until the socca batter is used up.

For the salad, combine all the ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste. For the sauce, combine the stock, honey and spices in a pan and reduce over medium heat until the sauce has the consistency of heavy cream, about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar and set aside.

Place the soccas on plates and top with some salad, a drizzle of the honey sauce, and a dollop of cr&egrav
e;me fraîche. C’est tout!