“…and a light stew of chickpeas and roasted peppers and a chilli kick.”
I read that line in a Jay Rayner restaurant review last week and, I thought, I can do that.
OK, it may require a little creativity, but hell, at the risk of being immodest, I can do that too.
Mind you, I was, last week, accused of being immodest “about everything” when I happened to say that, when it comes to writing, I don’t do false modesty, which is true. I know exactly how good I am; I know my weaknesses as well.
And I suppose it’s true that I don’t do false modesty about anything else either. There’s a reason for that – I have a character quirk that insists that I either do a thing well, or I don’t do it at all, for the good and sufficient reason that there is no pleasure to be had from doing something badly – there’s too much mediocrity in the world, and I’ve no desire to add to it.
I don’t boast about this, you understand, but nor do I denigrate myself. Why should I?
Of course, serious illness gets in the way of my doing many of the things I do well, cooking being just one of them. But I can still write most days, though even that suffers occasionally, too.
And I can still work up a recipe based on just 13 a word hint. It might not – it almost certainly won’t be – anything like the dish JR had, but it will be none the worse for that. The only question is, what’s a “chilli kick”? Because the guy is obsessed with heat, so I have a feeling this might have verged on the incandescent. Mine won’t, it’ll just have a modicum of heat, from Ñoras** peppers. These are the peppers used to make sweet paprika, and have just a little heat, which should be ideal, with the addition of a mild dried chilli, for what I have in mind.
** The only way to get that tilde over the N was to temporarily switch to US English. Seems not to have occurred to Microsoft geeks that people writing in British English might occasionally use Spanish or Portuguese words. Insular clowns.
I have a kilo of tiny dried chickpeas, a Spanish delicacy. Soaked, they are about the size of a garden pea, and lack the mealiness of their larger, gnarled, cousins. I used to be able to buy these locally, canned, but the numpty who runs the shop cares not the tiniest bit about what he stocks, and now sources his canned goods from Lidl, and jacks up the price, and the baby chickpeas are no more.
As for the peppers, I have no liking for bell peppers, finding them just a tad coarse, perfect in chilli con carne as long as they’re roasted and skinned, but otherwise best avoided. What I very much prefer are the long, red, pointed peppers, sweeter and tastier than bell peppers, though less fleshy.
I was minded to make this as a veggie dish (see recipe, below for veggie option), but the temptation to build it on a base of shallots sweated off with very finely sliced panceta is irresistible (I have a very fatty piece for the chickpeas, and a rather more lean one for the peppers), so that’s what it is going to be.
I favour the ovoid Echalion shallots, deeply pungent and eye-watering in the preparation, but decently modest in the finished dish, plus, if sliced diagonally into rings, they tend to keep their shape as long as you remember not to stir too vigorously, especially as this would tend to break up the peppers too. In fact, I intend to cook the sauce (based on a light vegetable stock), with just one of the roasted peppers, to give it some depth, and add the rest towards the end just to heat through (roasted, they’re already cooked, of course).
It won’t be a one-pan dish, as chickpeas produce a very muddy, beige, stock, and I really want the colour of the peppers to shine through, so they’ll be cooked separately, with a peeled and halved shallot, and the hunk of fatty panceta – like all dried pulses, chickpeas love fat, which improves the texture. Anyway, chickpeas are tasty enough, they don’t need bolstering with a chickpea-flavoured stock.
I’m wondering what herb would serve the peppers best, as the flavours should be quite delicate and I don’t want anything too assertive, maybe just the tiniest hint of basil, or maybe oregano, which is gentler, and I don’t think a touch of garlic will be out of place either – but just a touch, a flattened clove tossed in for a while, and removed later; it has to taste predominantly of chickpeas and peppers, lifted by a couple of peripheral flavours and a little heat. A little saffron might not go amiss either, just a small pinch, say ten strands.
Ñoras peppers. Also for saffron
Everything else from Sainsbury’s.
So, on to the recipe. Note: For a veggie version, omit the panceta and replace with a splash of olive oil to cook the chickpeas (not convinced it makes a difference, but it’s very popular), and a little olive oil and butter to sweat off the shallots.
300g baby chickpeas
4 red peppers, the long, pointed variety
2 Ñoras peppers,** cut in half, seeds removed, and very thinly sliced
4 to 6 Echalion shallots, depending on size, or your preferred shallots
I dried, medium-hot chilli, left whole
A piece of Panceta, about 50g, skin removed and sliced wafer thin
1 Kallo organic vegetable stock cube
A little dried oregano, to taste
1 clove of garlic, peeled
Tiny pinch of saffron (optional)
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
As it turned out, I got the urge to omit the oregano, and stirred a tablespoon of sweet paprika into the softened shallots instead. Good choice.
**The peppers are dried, and can be quite hard. Poke a hole in them with a sharp knife, half fill a tumbler with cold water, drop in the peppers and put an empty tumbler on top to hold them down, otherwise they’ll just float on top of the water, and leave to soak and fill with water for a couple of hours (the soaking water will take on some colour, and doubtless flavour, from the Ñoras, so you might as well save it and add it to the pot in due course, sieving out any seeds first). When soft, cut in half, remove the stalk, the copious seeds, and any pith, then slice the peppers into very thin strips. Set aside.
First, soak the chickpeas. With normal chickpeas, I’d give them at least 24 hours, sometimes longer, kept in the fridge if the weather, or the kitchen, is warm, so that there’s no risk they might ferment, which I’ve had happen in hot weather. With these small ones, overnight is fine.
Drain and rinse the soaked chickpeas, cover with cold water add the fatty panceta (belly pork would do at a pinch), cut into a couple or three pieces, the shallot, bring to the boil, skim off the white froth, cover, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender. Remove shallot if it’s stayed together, if not, forget it, toss the panceta/belly pork, drain and set aside.
Poke a hole in each of the red peppers – to stop them bursting, then either roast in a very hot oven until the skin is blackened and blistered, turning occasionally. Or grill them to achieve the same result. Either way, when suitably blackened – don’t get carried away, you’re not incinerating the things, just charring the skin – drop into a plastic bag, tie the top and leave until cool enough to handle.
The easiest way to get the charred skin off is to wash it under running water – no need to be too finicky, a few bits of black will add a smoky flavour, just get rid of as much as you can. Then remove the stalk and deseed, removing what little pith there is, and cut up the peppers into Christmas postage-stamp-sized pieces.
Take the thin slices of panceta (you can chop them up if you wish), and cook them gently, separating them so they don’t clump, until they’ve given up their fat and are just crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Top, tail, and peel the shallots, and slice/chop in whatever way you please, cut diagonally, in rings, as I said, would be my choice, purely for the aesthetics, they don’t taste any better, then add to the fat in the pot, and sweat gently until softened.
Add the stock cube, dissolved in a little water, the Ñoras and their soaking liquid, the garlic clove, squashed with the flat of knife, and the whole chilli, the oregano, and saffron, if using, and just one of the chopped peppers plus the reserved panceta. Cover, just, with boiling water, stir, bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Remove the garlic, or leave it if you like – your call.
Then add the rest of the peppers, the chickpeas, and enough boiling water to barely cover – it’s a stew, not a soup. Stir gently to combine without breaking up the peppers too much and taste for heat – if it’s hot enough, remove the chilli, or leave it in for longer – I’m not aiming for extreme heat, just a slight but definite chilli heat, cover, bring to the boil and simmer for another 30-40 minutes to give the crisp panceta time to soften. Remove from the heat, remove the chilli and garlic if you haven’t already, and leave to cool. When cold, refrigerate until the following day.
When cold, there will be a thin layer of fat on the top – do not even think of removing it – if fat bothers you, why did you make this? Fat = flavour, and also mouth-feel, to a degree.
Serve as is, in a bowl, with a hunk of good bread, or with mash or, for a lighter meal, with buttered cabbage.