Eternal City, quick meal: Pasta and Chickpeas

by Terry B on February 25, 2009

“One of Rome’s favorite humble dishes,” pasta e ceci, comes together quickly, deliciously with the aid of pancetta and garlic. Recipe below.

As with most national cuisines, the food of Italy is very much a collection of individual regional cuisines. Sure, there are national common threads, but there are also distinct differences. From Piedmont in the North, known for its cheeses, wines, white truffles and quality herbs to Sicily at the Southern tip, melding Arab and Northern techniques in dishes heavy on seafood and simple peasant ingredients [and a wonderful touch with rich sweets], to Tuscany in the middle, whose food has been described as being “of the earth”—wild game, cured meats, crusty breads and some of Italy’s best olives.

This Valentine’s Day, I was introduced to yet another Italian regional cuisine with a wonderful gift, an unfortunately out-of-print cookbook, Roma: Authentic Recipes from In and Around the Eternal City. I don’t know about you, but I’d never thought of a distinctly Roman cuisine before. Major capitals are such magnets for people from everywhere, each bringing and sharing their own foods, that it’s hard to imagine them having their own food personalities. Well, I’m happy to report that I’m wrong. Author Julia Della Croce and photographer Paolo Destefanis take us on a tour through the history of food in Rome and then sit us down at the table, serving up dish after delicious dish. Marion often says that if she gets one really good recipe from a cookbook, something she’ll make again and again, the book has earned its place on the bookshelf. If this simple, hearty dish is any indication, I think this book will earn its place many times over.

Chickpeas? Garbanzo beans? Whatever you call them, these delicious, nutlike legumes are nutritional powerhouses. Cultivated since around 3,000 BC, they’ve spread from their Middle Eastern origin to the Meditteranean, India, Africa and elsewhere around the world.

And no wonder. Chickpeas are packed with protein and fiber, making them an ideal staple in many cultures. They can lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart attacks and stabilize your blood sugar while providing steady, slow-burning energy.

In this dish, they help a little bit of animal protein go a long way; the pancetta is mainly there for the meaty taste it adds. Vegetarians could probably leave it out and still have a flavorful, satisfying meal. Pasta and chickpeas is partly a pasta dish, partly a soupy stew. The book lists the recipe as one of its primi piatti—first plates—meant to serve four. I served it as a generous meal for two, with leftovers.

Pasta and Chickpeas [pasta e ceci]
Serves 2 as a main course, with leftovers

3 cups canned chickpeas, divided [see Kitchen Notes]
6 cups water
1 whole peeled clove garlic, plus 3 cloves minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary chopped, plus one small sprig
1/2 teaspoon sea salt [plus more, if needed]
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced [see Kitchen Notes]
1 rib celery, with leaves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 ounces tagliatelle or other ribbon pasta, broken
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Drain and rinse chickpeas. Combine 2 cups of chickpeas and water in a soup pot and bring it to a gentle boil. Meanwhile, bash whole garlic clove with the side of a knife enough to bruise it and release oils, but not break it up. Add it, the rosemary sprig and sea salt to soup pot. Mash remaining cup of chickpeas in a bowl with hand masher, adding a little water from the pot to aid in mashing. Stir mashed chickpeas into the pot. At this point, things won’t look or smell very promising. Don’t worry. It will be delicious.

As the chickpea mixture gently boils, heat a skillet over a low flame. Add olive oil, pancetta, chopped rosemary and celery and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add minced garlic to pan and sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add tomato paste and about 1/2 cup of broth from the soup pot, stirring to dissolve tomato paste. Add mixture to soup pot. Cook for a few minutes to combine flavors. Discard rosemary sprig and whole garlic clove. Add “broken” pasta—I broke mine into quarters [you eat this dish with a spoon, not a fork, so you want the pasta in manageable pieces].

Cook until pasta is just barely al dente. Check seasoning—you may need more salt, but with canned chickpeas and tomato paste, the saltiness may vary. Ladle into individual soup bowls and top with a generous helping of freshly ground pepper. Serve with a crusty bread.

Kitchen Notes

Canned is quicker. The original recipe called for dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and cooked for well over an hour. Using canned chickpeas speeds up the dish considerably.

Pancetta. An Italian delicacy, pancetta is dry cured pork belly. It has often been called Italian bacon, but it is salt cured, not smoke cured. If you can’t find pancetta, I would substitute thickly sliced ham, not bacon. I think bacon would take over the dish.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan February 25, 2009 at 7:13 am

You can actually blanch American bacon to remove some of the smoke flavor at the expense of texture.

Rita February 25, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I love this dish, I make it often. I like the rustic, simple feel of it.
Thanks for sharing!

Laura February 25, 2009 at 8:48 pm

As I’m sitting here eating Nigella’s chickpea soup I am becoming totally obsessed with chickpeas. Such an appropriate post for my mood! Never thought about adding pancetta to chickpeas but on second thought it sounds amazing.

Lorraine February 26, 2009 at 1:55 am

I enjoy your lovely blog and have been lurking for sometime. After seeing this pasta I’m emboldened to comment as I make a similar “comfort food” chickpea pasta.

Yours looks absolutely yummy. I love the “broken” pasta.

My version is vegetarian and uses roughly chopped canned tomatoes–instead of tomato paste–and Parmesan cheese.

Toni February 26, 2009 at 2:50 am

Well, you know me, Terry…. I love putting chickpeas in all kinds of things!! And this dish is so very Italian – simplicity that allows each flavor to play off the other. Love it!

Ashley February 26, 2009 at 5:39 am

I love chickpeas and pasta! Can’t wait to try this :)

Allison February 26, 2009 at 7:18 pm

I love using chickpeas and pancetta in the same dish, and having it over pasta just makes it that much better! I often make Marcella Hazan’s chickpea, pancetta and leeks recipe, but next time I buy pancetta I’m making this. Thanks for the recipe!

Terry B February 26, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Ryan—Thanks for the tip!

Rita—After making it once, I think I’ll be making it often too.

Laura—Wow. Your soup and this dish have many flavors in common. And I like the addition of chili oil!

Thanks, Lorraine, and welcome to the comments! Your variation just proves that this dish can easily be done as a satisfying vegetarian meal.

I know you well, Toni, at least when it comes to chickpeas. I still enjoy making my own take on your quick, delicious chickpeas and couscous dish.

Thanks for stopping by, Ashley!

Allison—I’d love to hear about the Marcella Hazan recipe. Got a link?

maggie (p&c) February 26, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Yum. Love this dish. (I’ve only made the Jamie Oliver version.)

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet February 27, 2009 at 12:14 am

Terry, one word for this dish… YUMMO! That being said…where is my helping? :D

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) February 27, 2009 at 1:25 am

I’m learning to love chickpeas, slowly, but I’m getting there. A few incidents of poorly cooked chickpeas has convinced me that starting with canned is the way to go.

Terry B February 27, 2009 at 3:38 pm

maggie—Thanks! I haven’t seen his version, but I’ll look for it.

Thanks, Kim! Watch out for the Rachael Ray police, though—I think she’s trademarked “yummo.”

You know, Lydia, as much praise gets heaped upon dried beans and legumes, with the exception of lentils, I’m happy with canned. Dried may taste marginally better, but it’s often a crapshoot as to how long it takes them to cook. Or if they’ll thoroughly cook at all.

Andrea March 4, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Great blog, I love this dish, is one of my favorite.

Michael Kelly March 16, 2009 at 2:06 am

I love this site. I’m relatively new to cooking and most of these professional cooking blogs often intimidate me. My wife showed me this blog and I’ve been browsing for a bit. I JUST got done cooking and eating this meal and wow! Such a complex and deep flavor. Not to mention great on a chilly night. This is an instant favorite!

Terry B March 16, 2009 at 5:29 am

Thanks, Andrea!

Welcome to Blue Kitchen, Michael! I’m so glad you liked the dish. And you’re right about the cold weather thing—we just made it again the other night when it was down in the 20s here in Chicago.

Michael Kelly March 18, 2009 at 2:35 am

Thanks Terry! I definitely added too much pasta because it was going to go bad, but just turned it into more of a pasta dish rather than soupy. It was still outstanding. Here’s a picture of what it looked like.

http://www.fortheloveofgarlic.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/pasta-5.jpg

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