The Legume That Never Lets You Down
Few will, but the chickpea makes a particularly good friend.
NOT THAT LONG AGO, IN A FIT OF BOREDOM, or free-floating anxiety, I became peeved with chickpeas. I adore chickpeas. But like a sophomore lit major who thinks she discovered Levi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked and then gets furious when she finds out that everyone who has ever been a sophomore has heard of Levi-Strauss—and maybe even has Levi-Strauss T-shirts—I lashed out. See below:
As you can see, this was a very unpopular tweet. I may as well have suggested we put an end to pizza. Being the cranky hypocrite that I am, I was back on team chickpea just a few months later. As if I’d never tried to rally everyone on Twitter to cancel chickpeas. See below:
It’s not as though I ever thought I, personally, discovered chickpeas.
But it sure felt like it when I first got on the chickpea train, in college, where my main conduits were felafel and hummus, which I consumed by the pound and the gallon, respectively. I probably didn’t even know I was eating chickpeas per se—until I finally purchased the Moosewood Cookbook and began making my own felafel and hummus, along with that killer dish Satyamma’s Famous Cauliflower Curry. I couldn’t get enough of the nutty, earthy flavor and satisfying texture that set chickpeas apart from all the other beans in my rice and bean, cheap-protein college diet.
So I was probably under the impression by age 22 that I knew everything there was to know about chickpeas. I felt a kind of blasé chickpea ownership.
And then I grew up and moved to NYC, which was like stepping out of the black-and-white farmhouse into the vivid, technicolor Land of Oz. Chickpeas—drab-looking, putty-colored, doll-brain chickpeas—were new again, a luscious element in so many of the cuisines I sampled.
I had them not just in restaurants serving Indian (chana masala, pakora, and my favorite: dosa, the paper-thin pancake) and Middle Eastern cuisine, but African (tagines), Italian (socca—chickpea pancakes—and Sicilian chickpea fritters), Portuguese (chickpea and root vegetable soup) and Spanish (the iconic spinach and chickpea stew), just to name some I recall particularly fondly at the moment.
It became obvious to me that not only were chickpeas not mine alone, but that they also belonged to no one, while belonging to us all. My question was: how long had this been going on? The answer: probably since about 11,000 years ago, which is when historians suspect man began cultivating chickpeas, in Turkey, not long after we began farming (give or take a thousand years).
I don’t mind admitting that I probably could have served as America’s spokeswoman for chickpea naïveté back then. By which I mean that the United States, like Emily Nunn, was a little slow on the uptake when it came to acknowledging their worldwide allure.
The global market for chickpeas was valued at 16.2 billion in 2020—India is the world’s largest producer of chickpeas, followed by Australia and Turkey—and world chickpea consumption is second only to dry beans among pulses humans consume.
But we didn’t start growing commercial chickpea crops here until the 1980s. It took a burgeoning national desire for healthier proteins and, later, hummus’s steep ascent in grocery stores sales rankings, for farmers (and the government) here to finally get hip to the glorious chickpea vibe.
When I tracked down a chickpea plant—they grow in single pods on a feathery bush about the size of a peanut plant—my first response was: They must be a difficult crop. But apparently, aside from the typical concerns farmers face (or ignore) regarding climate and pests and disease and labor, chickpeas are relatively sustainable: According to Scientific American, they demand less water than similar crops and serve as a natural fertilizer by adding nitrogen to the soil. Plus, they can be harvested with a combine, like wheat.
Today, chickpeas are still grown primarily in Montana, Washington, Idaho, and North Dakota, which seems not all that smart of us as a nation. But on a personal level, I have used my awareness of the planet’s multi-faceted embrace of chickpeas to expand the ways in which I get chickpeas into my life (meaning into my pie-hole).
Am I saying I’m smarter than America? Or am I just selfish? I try to stay away from such broad proclamations at my age. You can decide for yourself.
And I’d be so happy if you’d correct me if I’m wrong to say that the Americanization of chickpeas—where’s the chickpea dish that reflects our culinary character?— never started, even though they were served at an early Thanksgiving celebrated by the Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1519, according to American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites.
It takes two kinds of lettuce (🥬 + $$) to keep the Department of Salad alive. The best way to support us: punch the green button.
But my concern here today—and every other day of my life until I die—is salads. If you look up “chickpea salad” on the googler here in the United States you’ll tend to turn up the reliably wide recipe category I can only call “the Mediterranean treatment,” which is delicious: chopped tomatoes, olive oil, olives, peppers, herbs, red wine vinegar. You know the drill. Otherwise, they seem to rarely pop up in salads unless it’s as an afterthought, tossed in to add some protein.
We’ve given you a few ways to get around that dilemma here at the Department of Salad, including Diana Henry’s wonderful roasted tomato, chickpea, and fennel salad and Ed Smith’s entree-worthy and delicious Chopped Kale, Dill, and Chickpea Salad with Smoked Trout (scroll down a bit). Plus, I subbed them in for black-eyed peas in the Halls Chophouse Chop Salad, with green peppercorn dressing, featured in our early Cobb Salads issue. I should probably do another one of those.
But it’s not enough! We need more!
So today I have adapted two chickpea-intensive salads. The first is a dish from a California chef I idolize, Suzanne Goin; it reflects a brand of graceful simplicity, originality, and flavor that does seem very American to me. The second is a beautiful and simple Moroccan chickpea salad.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When I cooked my dried chickpeas for both recipes (they’re so much better than canned; revelatory) I used the “Method for Stovetop, Uncovered” here, and dropped half an onion and a few cloves of peeled and smashed garlic into the pot when it was time to cook them.
*RECIPE: Suzanne Goin’s Roasted Beet and Fried Chickpea Salad (adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
Serves 6 or more
3 bunches of beets (I used nine medium-small beets)
½ cup plus two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (you will see below that I used less olive oil; this is up to you)
1 ½ teaspoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice plus more for seasoning (I used a LOT more)
1 cup cooked chickpeas, drained
pinch of cayenne
pinch of paprika
¼ cup thinly sliced shallots
½ cup strong-tasting oil-cured black olives (you may cut them in half; I left them whole)
½ cup flat leaf-parsley leaves
¼ pound ricotta salata cheese (feta would be delicious here, too)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400°F (205°C).
Roast beets, using this method, allow them to cool, then peel. Slice the beets into wedges and place them in a large bowl. (If the beets are small, just cut them in half.)
While the beets are roasting, toast cumin seeds in a medium pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and darken. Place half of them in a mortar and grind until they are powdered. (NOTE: If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you may use jarred ground cumin for the powder half.)
Transfer the powder to a large jar with a tight-fitting lid along with the remaining seeds, ¼ teaspoon salt, the red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, and 1/3 cup olive oil. Shake vigorously to emulsify. Taste for balance and seasoning. (NOTE: I used less olive oil than does Goin, who uses half a cup; add more if you like.)
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the cumin pan and heat 2 minutes until the oil is very hot. Add the chickpeas and fry them 4 to 5 minutes, shaking the pan often, until they are crispy. Season with a small pinch of cayenne and a big pinch of paprika about halfway through. Drain on paper towels and season with a few pinches of salt and some pepper.
Add the shallots to the beets, season with ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and gently toss them with three-quarters of the vinaigrette (shake it again, vigorously, before doing this). Season to taste, and add some more lemon, salt, or freshly ground black pepper if you like. (NOTE: I used the juice of an entire small lemon. Delicious.)
Gently toss in the olives and parsley leaves. Add a little more vinaigrette if necessary.
Cut the ricotta salata into ¼ inch thick slabs.
Arrange half the salad on a platter. Tuck half the cheese in and around the beets and scatter half the chickpeas on top. Place the rest of the salad on top and nestle the remaining ricotta salata and chickpeas into the salad.
Recipe: Chickpea Salad with Onions and Paprika (slada hummas)
This delicious and easy salad is from the 2008 book Flavors of Morocco, by Ghillie Basan, who points out that chickpeas, beans, and lentils are eaten daily in rural Morocco. This dish can be served at room temperature or warm. I took the liberty of quickly frying/frizzling half the onions, to create contrasting flavors and textures. If I were making this for a dinner party or lunch, I’d have all the ingredients prepped, then bring out the chickpeas to warm them before assembling the salad. You can eat it at room temperature, but the way the heated chickpeas wilt the herbs and melt the cheese a bit is really nice.
4 cups cooked chickpeas (just cooked or re-warmed)
1 medium-small red onion, cut in half lengthwise then in half crosswise and sliced with the grain, divided (you’re going to leave half of them raw and fry the other half)
2 large cloves garlic, grated (you may use up to 4)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 to 2 teaspoons paprika (I used two; it seems like a lot, but it’s not, especially when the cheese goes in and mingles with it all
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Juice of one lemon
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Small bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped
4 ounces goat cheese or feta, crumbled (I used goat, and it was absolutely dreamy; you may leave out the cheese, but I don’t recommend it)
Flakey sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bread, to serve (I had whole wheat pita)
In a frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive over medium-high heat. Add half the sliced onions and fry, stirring occasionally, until beginning to blacken in places. Stir in a pinch of the paprika, remove from heat, and set aside.
To a large bowl containing your just cooked (or re-warmed) chickpeas, add the raw and cooked onions, garlic, cumin, and paprika and stir to combine. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and toss gently to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add most of the herbs. If using cheese, sprinkle it over the salad now along with the remaining herbs. Toss a bit, to allow the cheese and herbs to mingle with the chickpeas, and serve immediately, with bread.
BOOKS! BOOKS! BOOKS!
Just making you hip to three new cookbooks I’m very excited about, which we will be featuring in greater depth here in the DOS—with recipes from each author—as soon as possible: Colu Henry’s Colu Cooks: Easy Fancy Food, Ali Slagle’s I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To), and Jess Damuck’s Salad Freak. Watch this space!
BEFORE WE GO:
Since I seem to have been disparaging the typical American chickpea salad earlier, I should say that I have one that I’ve been eating for years, which we bragged about in an earlier issue, as the kind of desk lunch you can make quickly. Not only is it not a “sad desk lunch” (there’s a hashtag for this), it is also satisfying and delicious. Plus, it won’t put you to sleep.
Serves 2 as lunch but I usually eat the entire thing myself
2 cups cooked chickpeas, at room temperature
1 large English cucumber, peeled (or not), seeded, and chopped into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 pint or more small (cherry/grape) tomatoes cut in half or quartered depending on size
2 tablespoons (or more) finely chopped red onion
Nice big handful of basil and/or mint, chopped or sliced thinly; or whatever other herbs you desire
Flaky sea salt
You can serve this on some greens or do what I do and eat it straight out of the bowl. Simply dress it all with a splash of sherry vinegar—it really doesn’t need olive oil! I usually add vinegar, some salt, taste and adjust. But if you require a dressing, use this one, which is in regular rotation around here:
*DOS Garlic Sherry Vinaigrette
1 large clove garlic, grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
Place all the ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake until well emulsified. Adjust seasonings to suit your taste.
THAT’S IT! WE’RE DONE HERE! As a reminder—since so many of you keep asking: We have someone helping us convert all the recipes in the archive to easily printable PDF files! That should start happening, beginning with the latest newsletter and moving backward, in the next two weeks or so, until they’re all converted.
As usual, paid subscribers should keep an eye peeled for another treat midweek. In the meantime, if you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, please do so with the buttons below. Thanks for reading.