Friday, February 29, 2008

Chickpeas: Neither a Chick, Nor A Pea...Discuss

Remember a hundred years ago when a verklempt Linda Richman presented us with that topic of conversation? You may not, because not every twelve year-old was the kitchen nerd that I was (and remain to this day). But even then it made me happy that the humble chickpea got a shout out in such a mainstream arena. With the possible exception of hummus and falafel, few people give the chick pea its due, or much attention at all. Although all legumes are good for us, chickpeas in particular are an excellent source of protein (just ask your favorite vegetarian), with one of the highest protein contents of any plant. Even chickpea flour is a much healthier alternative to regular white flour (and tastier, too). That's why, as I prepared for a volleyball game last night (yes, I've been known to don sweatpants and sneakers in public, but don't tell anyone) the only thing I prepared for dinner was a big heaping bowl of fried chickpeas. I know that by deep frying them I probably cancelled out the positive effects of their high protein content, but some things just cannot be helped.

Chickpeas are a pretty big food staple in Spain, whether it's in hearty soups or lighter fare like cod with chickpeas and spinach (yum!), so I, for one, have been stuffing my face with them for years. When I was studying abroad in London and especially destitute I often bought cans of chickpeas and threw them into chicken broth or dressed them like a salad, knowing that they were cheap but good for me. I've always been baffled by their lack of prominence in the US, especially since they're so popular all along the Mediterranean and well into the Middle East and Africa. Chickpeas have a long history, including being a prominent part of the ancient Roman diet, where they were commonly roasted and eaten as a crunchy snack.

My dinner was similar in that the chickpeas were fried until crunchy and dusted with salt and spices while still hot (look out for them when they pop). The result is not unlike a wasabi pea, only more plump and less off putting (not a big fan of the wasabi pea). They're really great as a snack or a light appetizer, and are delicious mixed into pasta with sausage (chorizo for me) and topped with a bit of cheese and toasted breadcrumbs. And the spices you flavor them with can change completely according to your taste--try sprinkling them with curry, cumin and turmeric for a whole new flavor profile, then topple them into some yogurt or pour them over basmati rice. Take them to work for a midday snack, or eat a whole bowl at dinnertime. Either way, give chickpeas a chance and you won't care that they're neither a chick, nor a pea--you'll just think of them as delicious.

Spicy Fried Chickpeas

1 15 ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and dried
2-3 cups oil for frying (I used leftover chili oil, but plain vegetable oil will do fine)
1/4 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
coarse salt

1. Heat oil until very hot but not smoking and carefully add the chickpeas. Cook until golden brown and crispy, about 7-10 minutes. Don't be afraid if they pop, that's a good thing.

2. Remove chickpeas from oil with a slotted spoon and set them on a paper towel covered bowl. While still hot, season with cumin, cayenne, paprika and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat and enjoy!


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