If Mark Bittman had to choose one food to eat for his last meal, it would be socca.
"I love socca. I love it to death." The former New York Times food columnist has a dreamy look in his eyes as he ruminates on his current favorite dish. He's talking about the centuries-old European pancake-like snack made from chickpea flour, a blank canvas ready to play host to any seasonal toppings. We keep it in the family for our springtime recipe, topping the "pizza" with a fresh chickpea pesto that's green with chervil and sweet mâche florets (see the recipe).
"I was in Liguria, where socca is called farinata. I was staying with a family, and every night, they started a fire—and every night, they'd make a socca," Bittman says.
Chickpea flour seems to be the ingredient on the tips of everyone's forks lately, perhaps in part due to the UN's declaration of 2016 as the Year of the Pulse (that would include legumes like beans, peas, lentils and more). Maybe that's why there have been two recent cookbooks dedicated to the nutty flour of late: first, The Chickpea Flour Cookbook ($18) published last October and, more recently, Chickpea Flour Does It All ($20) from Lindsey S. Love of popular blog Dolly and Oatmeal.
It's also a mainstay on the menu at any coastal Italian restaurant, like New York's Santina. There, you can choose from five toppings for cecina (another term for the dish), ranging from lamb tartare to smashed avocado. For a simple, classic Ligurian snack, "dip it in marinara sauce or serve it with a salad on top," vegan chef Tal Ronnen suggests. He serves farinata as a special at his L.A. restaurant Crossroads, and his cookbook of the same name includes a recipe for thick, rustic bread studded with diced butternut squash.
Chickpea flour goes by many names: gram flour, garbanzo bean flour and besan flour. And thought it's much cheaper than its gluten-free counterparts, you can make it at home by running dried chickpeas through a blender or food processor. It's gluten free and high in fiber yet doesn't taste like the ground, plus it has as much protein as a serving of almonds. We'll take a slice of crispy, pesto-topped flatbread over a handful of nuts any day.
Have we convinced you yet that chickpea flour is worth a try? Here are four ways to keep your finger on the pulse.
① Look to the East. Burmese tofu isn't actually tofu at all—it's chickpea flour (known to this part of the world as besan flour) combined with water, no bean curd here. But left alone to set at room temperature, it becomes ready to be sliced and enjoyed as is or fried for a crispy snack. Garbanzo bean flour is also prominent in Indian cuisine, like at Portland's Bollywood Theater, where Troy MacLarty uses a chickpea flour batter to fry classic Indian potato dumplings. Jessi Singh at Babu Ji in New York makes a similar street food potato snack that he tucks into a chickpea flour-based pastry.
② Fry away home. Tempura batter is traditionally flour with a starchy component like cornstarch, meaning gluten-intolerant people can rarely partake in the deliciousness. But swap out all-purpose for chickpea flour, and you can make fried snacks everyone can enjoy. Ronnen uses it to bread squash blossoms or maitake mushrooms for a blooming onion dish. And Love's book sheds light on chickpea frites: a genius snack that rivals its potato relative, which she makes in small batches to allow for maximal golden edges.
③ Get in a bind. Chickpea flour's starchiness makes it a good binder for soups or stews. Instead of using all-purpose flour the next time you make a roux, use chickpea flour instead. Not only will it keep the dish gluten free, but the flavor will be different and actually taste like something—specifically, naturally nutty, without waiting for your flour to toast.
④ Keep it sweet. Love enjoys baking with chickpea flour for the texture it lends to the final product, like the lemon-rhubarb snacking cake and chocolate banana loaf that are featured in her book. At Cafe Clover in New York, winter's tiramisu crepe cake has been recently swapped out for a springier passion fruit-matcha version. But instead of hefty buckwheat flour in the Italian one, nutty chickpea flour is the star of the show here.
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