Thursday, April 3, 2008

Just the context we needed for discussing and planning and plotting and laughing

I am proud to say that I had some semblance of a misspent youth.

Even now, as a mid-thirtysomething woman with a "career" and a marriage and a mortgage, I look back on this brief period of misplaced priorities and irresponsible financial decisions and consequences-be-damned activities with great pride and no small measure of nostalgic yearning. It all started with a friendship that I never thought would be as close and enduring as it has become.

I met LJS when we were both working at a certain rock and roll museum that is located in Cleveland but holds its induction ceremonies in New York. The first time I was introduced to her I was totally intimidated by her stunning height and rapier wit. (Though she takes great pride in the wit, she never believes me that her height is something to be envied.) I thought, OK, cool co-worker. I did not realize that I had just met one of the best friends I will have in this life.

LJS has taught me that the best friendships are forged in youthful jackasserie. ("Jackasserie," a noun coined by Sister, roughly translates to idiotic but outrageously fun behavior.) LJS and I were both single when we first met and as such were not bogged down with actual adult obligations. Not that marriage bogs you down, but you know what I mean. We were free to do whatever sort of nonsense we wished, such as frequently shopping at Nordstrom's as though we could easily afford it; drinking far too much wine at La Cave du Vin; dropping life's responsibilities for weeks at a time to follow a Canadian power pop band around the United States and also Ontario; racking up significant credit card bills staying at nice hotels with triple-sheeting and rewards programs while following around said Canadian power pop band; getting far too invested in fictional portrayals of the 1980 Olympic hockey team; forcing people to watch "On the Line" with Lance Bass with us; kidding ourselves that Nashville is, in fact, really close to Atlanta, so why not drive there for yet another show?; dying over the reunited Duran Duran; and eating many meals together at Mama Santa's in Cleveland's Little Italy.

(When you see this amp, you know it is time to rock. [Sloan @ Grog Shop, Cleveland, OH, January 2007])

Mmmm, Mama Santa's. After LJS left the rock and roll museum and we stopped seeing each other on a daily basis, we would often meet at Mama Santa's (or Maxi's, also in Little Italy, or at the now-shuttered Ruthie & Moe's diner) to ground ourselves with a good meal and plan for our next attack. Usually our next attack involved determining where Sloan was playing and then making hotel reservations in that city. But often our plans were more local, much simpler, but just as awesome. Mama Santa's cheap and amazingly delicious Italian-American food was just the context we needed for discussing and planning and plotting and laughing. Their pizza is out of this world, but, as she did with fashion luminaries such as Lagerfeld muse Ines de la Fressange, LJS introduced me to Mama Santa's ceci. I never looked back.

Ceci are chickpeas. By virtue of its other applications (pureed in hummus, curried in Indian dishes like aloo chana, toasted and sprinkled with delicious spices), the chickpea has already earned its status as one of the finest foods on earth. But before I started eating regularly at Mama Santa's, I had no idea the Italians had laid claim to the glorious legume as well. But I should have known, and shame on me and my taste buds for our ignorance. Native to Turkey, the chickpea wisely meandered over to the Roman diet long ago; indeed, Apicius includes several chickpea recipes. The Italians still use them in many ways, including in a soup-like pasta dish that found its way onto Mama Santa's menu, then quickly into my stomach.

Pasta e ceci alla Romana (or, simply, ceci on Mama Santa's menu) is glorious in its simplicity, the kind of meal that has a sublime flavor inversely proportionate to the humble, rustic nature of the ingredients. Tagliatelle or fettuccine, tomato paste, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt, freshly ground black pepper and the blessed chickpea. That's it. That's all you need. At Mama Santa's, it arrives at the table sloshing messily over the rim of a large, shallow soup bowl. Its lucky recipient must not stand on ceremony: the soupy tomato sauce will splash, invariably staining the diner's new Club Monaco sweater, as chickpeas hurl themselves off the spoon in a desperate attempt to reunite with their fettuccine friends still in the bowl. The chickpeas add an amazing unctuous dimension to the fettuccine and tomato sauce that is unexpected and totally delicious, elevating run-of-the-mill pasta to a sort of texture and flavor heaven. (Usually I don't use the word "unctuous" to describe delicious food but trust me, the slippery-ness of the olive oil in this dish marries so divinely to the starchy-ness of the chickpeas, creating a beautifully thickened peppery sauce that, in my book, beats anything those fussy old French mother sauces have to offer.) Ceci is best eaten with the most buttery, garlicky toast imaginable. That's how Mama Santa's rolls and I see no reason to mess with perfection.

Like most restaurant dishes that I order so often that I no longer need to consult the menu, I just had to translate ceci to the home kitchen. I know that I most certainly could have adapted it without a recipe, given how simple the dish is. But I thought it would be more fun to consult the brilliant Giuliano Bugialli's pasta masterpiece, Bugialli on Pasta. The book is full of authentic Italian recipes presented alongside a no-nonsense and informative narrative. If you want to learn how the chickpea is used differently in Rome versus Naples versus Lecce, this is the book for you. And you should want to know those things, after all, because what life is worth living that doesn't examine and celebrate chickpeas?

Of all the chickpea's health benefits -- it is high in folate, protein, dietary fiber and is a great source of calcium -- I personally hope that it has some vitamin or mineral known for boosting memory-retention. For I need it. LJS knows that I frequently get confused and assume that she was present at major events in my lifetime that took place before we met. Many times I start to reminisce with her about something that happened in college, but then she gently reminds me that we went to different schools. Perhaps if I eat enough chickpeas I can keep our friendship's chronology straight.

Then again, why does it matter? It's just as fun to assume that I've known her forever -- or at least as long as the Romans have been dining on ceci.


Adapted from Bugialli on Pasta

According to Bugialli, "Ceci (Cicer arietinum), or chick-peas, probably originated in southeastern Turkey, but there are no known survivors of the original, wild form of the plant. The varieties presently known likely are domesticated mutations. The Mediterranean chick-pea is larger and is white to dark yellow in color, while the type used in India and Persia is smaller and brown.

"Following are three recipes for pasta e ceci: from Rome, Naples and Lecce (Apulia), all seats of ancient Greek and Roman culture. The Tuscans, famous in Italy as 'bean eaters,' have in addition to their many Phaseolus vulgaris bean dishes quite a few using chick-peas. [Phaseolus vulgaris is the species that includes Cannellini, great northern beans, red kidney beans et. al.]

"This...Roman version of pasta with chick-peas shares certain traditional ingredients of the Tuscan dish, but here the rosemary taste is much stronger, tomato paste is used instead of tomatoes and the pasta is dried tagliatelle instead of the very short tubular avemarie or ditalini."

It's also worth repeating what Bugialli mentions in the introduction to his "Pasta and Beans" chapter: "Every part of Italy has its pasta and beans minestre or minestroni. Today we are reaffirming the wisdom of this combination, for it provides an almost balanced diet in itself, containing protein and carbohydrates, without cholesterol or fat. This was understood through folk wisdom many centuries ago, and it may be that these dishes were along the first uses of pasta."

Blessed chickpea, indeed.

For the chickpeas:

2 c. canned chickpeas (about 1 1/2 19-oz. cans), drained, liquid reserved

4 c. cold water

1 c. reserved liquid from the cans of chickpeas

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 t. kosher salt

For the sauce:

1/2 c. olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, peeled but left whole

1 T. fresh rosemary leaves, coarsely chopped

3 T. tomato paste

1/2 t. kosher salt

1 t. freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 lb. dried fettuccine or tagliatelle

Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to taste

Drain chickpeas, reserving 1 c. of the liquid. Place 4 c. cold water, the reserved chickpea liquid, chickpeas and 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary into a medium-sized stockpot over medium heat. When the water reaches a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook the chickpeas until they are heated through but still firm, about 10 minutes. Add 1 t. kosher salt to the chickpeas, cover again, reduce the heat to low and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

While the chickpeas are simmering, prepare the sauce. Heat the olive oil with the garlic cloves and chopped rosemary in a medium saucepan over medium heat for 5 minutes. It will seem like an excessive amount of olive oil, and maybe it is -- but trust me, it is tasty. After 5 minutes, remove 1 c. of the chickpea broth and whisk it together in a small bowl with the tomato paste, dissolving and thinning the paste. Add the tomato paste mixture to the saucepan with the olive oil. Season the sauce with salt and abundant black pepper (about 1 t.) and cook, whisking occasionally, for 10 minutes.

Pass the sauce through a wire mesh strainer directly into the stockpot containing the chickpeas and chickpea broth. Push the sauce through the strainer with a wooden spoon, then discard the garlic and rosemary. Also remove the 2 rosemary sprigs from the chickpea broth. Stir to combine the tomato sauce with the chickpeas and chickpea broth. At this time the mixture will have a somewhat soupy consistency.

Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions until it is al dente. Leave a lid on the pot for just about all of the pasta's cooking time. (The goal is not to let all the liquid boil away.) Taste for salt and pepper and let the dish rest off the heat before serving. Sprinkle with grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano and mangia.

Serves 4, but with only one helping each. It might be a good idea to double this recipe if you're hungry, which as you undoubtedly know I always am.


Anonymous said...

oh man i will definitely be trying this recipe. my dad makes a giant vat of amazing minestrone with ceci every winter. it is a magical bean indeed.

Dianne said...

A vat of minestrone! That sounds great.

I am loving this recipe right now. I really could eat it every night. I hope you enjoy it!

John Fay said...

Wow! Looks and sounds awesome! Always looking for chickpea recipes as they are low in oxalate and therefore good for not getting kidney stones back!