Chickpea Consolation

Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Almonds 

I’ve lived in Edinburgh for nearly six years now. That’s long enough to have learned a thing or two about the weather here, such as that just because the calendar says July doesn’t mean you can retire your Gore-Tex® from active duty, that sunny days can turn into gale-force storms in the time it takes to put on a pair of shoes and run to the door, and that the word ‘picnic’ is usually followed by a rueful laugh. In other words, we expect bad weather anytime and anyplace, but somehow this year has surpassed even Scottish standards for unpredictability. In the words of my doctoral supervisor Miriam, a pragmatic and weather-hardened New Zealander herself, “there is no better word for the climate here this spring than vile.”


You see, Scotland did something downright mean this year. It offered us an April beyond compare; the birds were singing at full volume, the trees were blossoming weeks ahead of schedule, and day after day dawned sunny, bright and warm. “This global warming thing isn’t so bad after all!” was a refrain heard round the city, as the promise of a long, dry summer began to take shape in our imaginations. You know, the kind of summer everyone else gets every year. But then May arrived, and with it freezing rain, howling winds, and hailstorms. We turned our heater back on after more than a month of disuse. We switched back to the winter quilt. And worst of all, the shelves full of the season’s first produce were suddenly the last thing I wanted to eat.

I mean, I wanted to want to eat them. I certainly have been looking with envy at all those beautiful strawberries and early-season cherries, plump baby favas, purple artichokes and white asparagus splashed across the blogosphere. I should be eating that stuff too, I told myself wistfully, even if it has been imported from Turkey or Sudan or wherever they grow these things nowadays for the Scottish market. But when I actually went shopping, it became clear that all the good intentions in the world couldn’t change the impact the weather was having on my appetite: all I really wanted to eat were potatoes and pasta, sausages and stews and crispy-skinned roast chickens.

And chickpeas, so many chickpeas. Yes, sometime during this miserable month of May, I began bringing home two, three, four, six cans of chickpeas a week in an attempt to satisfy my sudden and inexplicable cravings for them. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re slipping some addictive anti-depressant drugs into the lining of those cans. I’ve been forcibly restricting myself to making Ximena’s chickpeas with spinach only once a week (try it with feta, mmmm!), and we’ve tried just about every variation we can dream up of a simple chickpea salad à la Molly. Then there’s hummus, which I’ve been eating like it’s going out of style, and I even experimented with a hot cream of chickpea soup flavored with sherry (which, admittedly, was the one dud in a sea of chickpea bliss). But nothing, nothing compares to these chickpeas from Catalonia, the recipe for which I found in what might be my new favorite cookbook. I’m almost at a loss to describe them, they’re so good; imagine the heady saffron-and-garlic pungency of a great paella blended with the nutty sweetness of romesco, but instead of finding rice or seafood lurking under all those explosive flavors you find chickpeas, soft as butter. This is a dish that hits all the right notes of versatility too; it’s a bold and intriguing side dish as part of an elaborate meal, and it’s also at home as the main event, with nothing but a piece of bread and a crunchy salad to help it down; it’s even fantastic cold (which, let’s face it, is probably more appealing to you right now than to me).

Anyway, I’m doing my best to stay optimistic that the long, hot summer of our dreams is still on its way, and should you wish to cross your fingers for us I’d be much obliged. On second thought, though, a shipment of any spare sweaters and wool socks you have lying around would probably be a better idea. And while you’re at it, throw in some extra cans of chickpeas, just in case.

Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Almonds

This wonderful dish comes from an equally wonderful cookbook that in my ever-humble opinion deserves to be far better known than it is. The Essential Mediterranean by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (a regular contributor to Food and Wine and the New York Times as well as a part-time resident in Italy) is easily one of the best cookbooks of its genre I’ve ever come across. While there are many books about regional cuisines that are fascinating reads yet are only mediocre books to cook from, and many more that are the reverse, few manage to be both simultaneously. This one is; its chapters on the basic foodstuffs common to the entire Mediterranean – olives, wine, wheat, salt, etc – are an eloquent weaving of history, travelogue, and memoir, followed by a selection of intriguing and well-researched recipes that illustrate the different ways the ingredients are used across the region. This is one book I find dangerous to keep on the bedside table, since once I pick it up to read I simply can’t put it down! Oh, and as for this recipe, try it with some spinach or other greens – blanched and coarsely chopped – stirred in with the stock and almond mixture for a slightly different take on a satisfying one-bowl meal.

Source: adapted from The Essential Mediterranean by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Serves: 4-6

2 (14oz/400g) cans chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and grated or finely minced
1 can (14oz/400g) plum tomatoes in juice, preferably Italian, drained and chopped
pinch sugar
pinch saffron threads
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup (50g) lightly toasted almonds
small handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 1/2 cups (325ml) chicken or vegetable stock

juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste 

Try the chickpeas – if they’re not completely soft to the bite (and canned ones rarely are), bring them to a boil in lightly-salted water and cook them until they are, usually about 10-20 minutes. Drain.

In a heavy frying pan, heat the oil over medium-low heat and sauté the onion until it is golden brown and very soft, about 25 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and sugar, letting them fry until they melt into the onions and form a paste, about another 10-15 minutes. This is called a sofregit, and its intense flavor forms the basis of many Catalan dishes. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a large mortar or food processor, combine the saffron, garlic, almonds and parsley and pound (or pulse) to a thick paste (add a little water if necessary to keep things moving). Add the paste to the onion mixture along with the stock and the chickpeas, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer until the liquid has reduced to a thick sauce, about 10-15 minutes. Season with salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature; you’ll find that this dish keeps developing in flavor the longer it sits.