Boy did I ever get an earful the next morning at the café from my girlfriends. (Yes, plural. I have 4 girlfriends. We exchange hellos and how do you dos every morning and every evening as I walk by their table at the café right outside my apartment building. The youngest of my girlfriends is 78.)
No idle chit-chat a few mornings ago, however. I was pretty much obliged to join them and recount each and every step of the previous night’s pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpeas, pronounced CHAY-chee) preparation in detail. Each step was examined in detail, discussion of it ensued, each signora adding her two cents worth. Not until a full quorum of vigorous nodding was reached was I then asked what I did next . . and please be precise. Another full round of discussion, comments about that step, etc.
By this point I realized that things were being taken a bit more seriously that I imagined, that I might have gotten myself in too deep. Perhaps asking them if they had any hints or tips on the dish’s preparation the day before hadn’t been the greatest idea. No chance of backing out now, I took a deep breath and continued.
“NO NONONONONONO pancetta!!” (Pancetta is bacon). One minute it was smiles and merriment all around, and next there was so much tsk-tsking, tongue clucking, and tick-ticking that they sounded like a battery of Swiss cuckoo clocks. Pancetta bad, I was told. Not just bad, it ruins the pasta e ceci. Worse, it ruins . . . La Ricetta (The Recipe). Insert pregnant pause, during which four Roman matrons glower at you for what seems like forever.
Now, here they didn’t mean “recipe” in the normal sense, as in something written the instructions of which you follow to make food. This was in a whole other league, this was Uber-Recipe, the concept of Recipe in general, the platonic ideal passed along since time immemorial of which they are the guardians and which in a moment of light-headedness they, in retrospect regrettably, had decided to share with me.
Anyhow, at this point I should have taken the hit and kept my trap shut and just nodded. But noooo! Although I swore that next time and forever after I would never use pancetta again, I said despite the pancetta it hadn’t been all that bad really. Damn the day! Same difference had I spat in church.
So here’s my girlfriends’ recipe:
1. Soak a pound of dry chickpeas overnight in salted water with a garlic clove and a sprig of fresh rosemary. (Add water as necessary, as chickpeas will slowly soak it up.)
2. The following evening in a large pot sautee some garlic, rosemary, and (SECRET n.1) two anchovies* with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add a small crushed tomato (or couple of spoonfuls of canned tomatoes, or some tomato paste, etc.).
3. Drain the soaked chickpeas and discard the soggy garlic clove and rosemary. (Of course, if you want to skip the whole overnight soaking procedure, you can use canned chickpeas . . . but you do NOT want to tell THEM, and if you do it wasn’t my idea)
4. Add the chickpeas to the pot and (SECRET n.2) mash up about 1/3 of the chickpeas (blender, blunt instrument, bottom of a mug, etc.). Salt and stir on medium heat for a few minutes (the idea is to heat up all the chickpeas and get the oil, garlic, etc. mixed in).
5.Add hot water until chickpeas are covered and salt to taste (just like when boiling water for pasta). Cover and bring to a medium-low boil, adding water (and salt) as necessary (the chickpeas, and later the pasta, will soak water up as they cook). Depending on how hearty your chickpeas are this can take anywhere from 30 minutes (canned chickpeas) to 3 hours.
6. About 10 minutes before** the chickpeas are done (soft all the way through), add about 2/3 or 3/4 of a pound of pasta (small round ditalini are most common, but any small or broken up pasta will do). Cook remaining 10-12 minutes until pasta is done, adding warm water as necessary to maintain the consistency of a thick soup.
7. Serve immediately with Parmesan, oil, and some ground pepper.
*Had I been listening carefully, I would have remembered to use anchovies instead of pancetta. This was their secret ingredient. Which they shared with me. Which I didn’t use. Ingrate that I am. Mash the anchovies up in the oil as the garlic goldens.
**I know, this is like driving in Italy and getting directions from a helpful pedestrian who tells you to take the left turn before the block with the hardware store on it. But this is an Italian recipe, so there you go.