- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

My students registered puzzled looks when I talked about chickpeas in my first California cooking classes.

“Oh, you mean garbanzo beans,” they said after examining a handful. That’s when I learned that the term garbanzo is more common than chickpea in the Western United States, probably due to the Latino influence on the region’s food.

The nutty-flavored legume took a long journey to reach us. From ancient Mesopotamia, where chickpeas are said to have first been cultivated as early as 5000 B.C., they traveled to the Mediterranean and to Europe. They also migrated east to India, where they became an essential crop.

Americans associate chickpeas with appetizers and salads, notably in the Middle Eastern dip called hummus and in the spicy fritters called falafel, not to mention as standard salad-bar fare. Yet in regions of the world where chickpeas have a long history, they are often integrated into entrees, particularly warming winter soups and stews.

Persian cooks make hearty, aromatic chickpea soups of lentils, spinach, cilantro and dill in beef broth, often finishing the dishes with sizzling onions and garlic.

Chickpeas are also wonderful prepared as an Indian stew, for which they might be simmered in a sauce spiced with chilies, ginger root, tomatoes, and toasted mustard and cumin seeds. The spices enliven the earthy flavor and turn the chickpeas into a wonderful vegetarian accompaniment for basmati rice.

All around the Mediterranean region, chickpeas are a frequent element in satisfying main courses, both meaty and meatless. Italian cooks love them with pasta as a tasty variation on their savory pasta i fagioli, a thick soup of pasta with beans.

In “Patricia Wells’ Trattoria” (Avon), the author presents a Florentine-inspired casserole of cubed pork with spicy chickpeas, spinach and lots of garlic. Turkish rice pilaf with cumin-spiced chickpeas is so popular that you can even find it sold in carts on the street.

Chickpeas are central to the hearty soups and stews of Spain known as cocidos, in which they are combined with meats, sausages and winter vegetables. To make cocido pelayo, chickpeas are poached with lamb, chorizo sausage, potatoes, bay leaves and a variety of winter vegetables.

Cooks from the Maghreb region along the Mediterranean’s southwestern shores are also fond of chickpeas. In one Algerian cookbook on my shelf, nearly every braised-meat recipe calls for a handful of chickpeas.

Like onions in a stew, the chickpeas are not even mentioned in the recipe names. Everyone simply knows they are there. Tunisian cooks use them generously in an aromatic chicken and eggplant stew seasoned with garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and vinegar.

Inhabitants of the Mideast are such avid chickpea lovers that they are even served at breakfast. In the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean, the day might begin with a chickpea stew containing butter and bits of pita.

As chickpeas cook, they maintain their shape. Even after lengthy simmering, they don’t fall apart, and the texture also holds up well in cans. Still, when I have time, I prefer to cook my own from dried. They taste so good that in my house, even a big pot disappears quickly.

It used to be that I couldn’t find dried chickpeas in the supermarket and had to shop for them in specialty Middle Eastern or Latin American markets. These days, chickpeas are widely available both dried and in cans. In some gourmet markets, you can even find soaked, fast-cooking chickpeas that are ready to eat in minutes.

In the past few years, a tasty new form of chickpea has become available at Latino markets, gourmet shops and some farmers markets. They are green chickpeas in the pod, and they are prized as a delicacy in India, Ethiopia and the eastern Mediterranean region. Although they cook in just a few minutes, these fresh chickpeas, like fresh peas, take time to shell.

At any time of day in the Middle East and India, roasted chickpeas are savored as snacks like peanuts or soy nuts. These are also sold in Middle Eastern or Indian grocery stores in North America. My father-in-law, who lived his entire life in the Middle East, always kept a stash of roasted chickpeas for satisfying snacks. I follow his example and take a little bag of them along when I’m on a trip.

When I return home Turkey, I don’t cram my suitcase with Turkish towels or bathrobes. I tuck in these appealing chickpea snacks, which I buy in all sorts of flavors at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar, some natural roasted, some salted, some spicy, and some with a crunchy coating.

Another form this legume may take, chickpea flour, is sold in Persian and Indian markets.

High in protein and fiber and gluten-free, this golden flour is used to thicken soups and to make snacks and even desserts. I also enjoy sweet chickpea balls, a kind of halvah flavored with brown sugar, which I find in Pakistani and Indian markets.

Indians are not alone in their predilection for sweet garbanzos. Armenians and Afghans munch on candied chickpeas coated with a fondant-like glaze. In East Asian markets, I’ve found jars of chickpeas in syrup from the Philippines. Iranian bakers have been turning chickpeas into cookies for centuries. First taste can be surprising, but after you eat a few, they become addictive.

HOW TO COOK DRIED CHICKPEAS

Home-cooked chickpeas are delicious and produce a tasty cooking liquid that is good for soups. This recipe makes more than enough for the stew that follows, but it’s best to have extra on hand. Freeze them in their cooking liquid and microwave when ready to use.

Although the traditional practice is to soak dried chickpeas before cooking, I generally skip this step. You can soak them, if convenient, or if you’ve had them a long time. Doing so will cut their cooking time slightly.

To soak, put them in a bowl, cover generously with cold water and soak overnight in a cool place or, if the weather is hot, in the refrigerator. Drain before cooking.

1 pound (21/4 to 2½ cups) dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

Pinch of salt

Put beans in a large pot, and add 3½ cups water, or enough to generously cover. Bring to a boil and add salt. Cover and simmer over low heat until tender, about 1½ to 2 hours, adding hot water occasionally to keep them covered.

If cooking chickpeas ahead, refrigerate them in their cooking liquid. Reserve cooking liquid for soups and stews. Makes 5 to 5½ cups cooked chickpeas, about 6 servings.

Beef and chickpea stew

In this North African stew, the chickpeas gain a wonderful flavor from the beef that simmers in a zesty tomato sauce with garlic and hot peppers. Serve the stew with cauliflower, zucchini or green beans, with couscous or basmati rice.

For quick accompaniments, serve the stew with pita bread to dip in the tasty sauce and begin the meal with a salad of mixed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes.

2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

2 pounds boneless lean beef chuck, excess fat trimmed, cut in 11/4- to 1½-inch pieces, patted dry

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, drained

1 or 2 jalapeno or serrano chilies, seeds and ribs discarded, minced (see note)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

½ teaspoon turmeric, optional

1 teaspoon paprika

6 large garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3/4 to 1 cup dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and sorted, or 1½ to 2 cups cooked or canned, drained cayenne pepper

Cook dried chickpeas, following directions above.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven or heavy stew pan. Brown beef in batches over medium-high heat on all sides, adding more oil if needed to prevent sticking. Transfer cubes from pan to a plate as they brown.

Add onion to pan and cook over low heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until softened. Return meat to pan, reserving any juices on plate, and sprinkle meat with flour. Toss lightly to coat meat with flour. Cook over low heat, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Pour juices from plate over beef. Stir in tomatoes and 2 cups water, or enough to barely cover meat. Add chilies, salt and pepper to taste, turmeric, if using, paprika and garlic, and bring to a boil, stirring often. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.

Stir in tomato paste. If pan appears dry or sauce is too thick, stir in more water. Drain cooked or canned chickpeas and add to stew.

Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 45 minutes or until beef is tender when pierced with a knife. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cayenne pepper to taste. Serve stew from enameled casserole or deep serving dish.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: If you are sensitive to hot chilies, wear gloves when handling them.

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