I popped home to the UK last week to visit friends and family, and there waiting for me was February’s issue of the Observer Food Monthly. Joyous was I.
I like Nigel Slater. He ranks up there with all my other no-fuss, good result food writers and I look forward to the seasonal delights he cheerfully churns out in the Observer in the same way that small children look forward to Christmas.
This month was right up my cold-and-snow-capped-Swiss street. Slow-cooked and hearty-sounding, each one of Nigel’s recipes just groaned to be made over the course of a whole afternoon. This evening, I had plumped for the vegetarian option: the chickpea and spinach gratin.
Perhaps, now that I had returned to Switzerland, it was that I was pining for home and wanted more of the purple sprouting broccoli I had gorged on while I had been there; or it could have simply been the pity I bestowed upon a bunch of the regular, beginning-to-soften-slightly, green variety that I had discovered in my fridge upon my return… whatever, I favoured that over the spinach option and decided to use broccoli in my version instead.
I also made a few other minor changes, each of which were for practicality reasons only. Initially, I added some stock vegetables to the chickpeas when I cooked them (a couple of small carrots, a snapped-up stalk of celery and a bay leaf), so that I could use the cooking liquid as stock later on in the whole process. Secondly, I used a mix of Gruyere and Parmesan cheese for the topping, simply because I feel compelled to stock my fridge full of the Swiss stuff and need every opportunity to use it up before the smell permeates everything else in there. And lastly, I didn’t use quite as much crème fraiche as Nige’ specified, so I upped the amount of chickpea stock to make up for it.
I can’t possibly tell you whether any of these alterations were to the detriment of the original, but what I can tell you is that it tasted pretty darn good to me.
So here we have it: a recipe for this evening’s dinner.
For 4 people:
Dried chickpeas – 250g
Carrots – 2 small, peeled and cut into chunks
Celery – a stalk, snapped into pieces
Bay leaf – 1
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Red onions – 4, which have been peeled and roughly chopped
Garlic cloves – 2, finely sliced
Flour – 1 tbsp
Broccoli – a medium to large head, large florets halved and stalk quite finely sliced
Chickpea stock – about 400ml to 500ml
Crème fraiche – 185g
Grated Gruyere and Parmesan – 40g of each
White breadcrumbs – a good, large handful
You’ll need to know the night before exactly how much you want to eat this dish, since the dried chickpeas need to be soaked overnight. I always cover them with plenty of cold water and add a mix of 1 tsp each of flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt, which have been made into a paste with a dribble more water before being stirred into the chickpeas. It just means that the next day they only take about 40 minutes to cook, rather than the several days they would take otherwise (or so I am told).
So, the next afternoon, drain the chickpeas, rinse them well and tip them into a saucepan. Cover them with cold water and add your carrots, celery and bay leaf. Wedge the lid onto the saucepan and bring the water to the boil (you’ll know when this happens, as you’ll hear a deep rumbling and then much fizzing as water and steam attempt to escape from the sealed pan). Once this happens, turn the heat right down and simmer for about 40 mins until the chickpeas are cooked. Drain the chickpeas over a bowl and add a bit of salt to the resulting stock.
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celcius/gas mark 4. Heat the olive oil in a heavy based pan over a medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Leave them there for about 15 mins, pushing them around every now and then until they are soft and beginning to colour, but before they begin to catch. Stir in the flour.
While the onions and garlic are cooking, steam or boil the broccoli in salted water until it’s just done. Drain it and leave the lid partially off, so that excess moisture can escape.
Add the chickpeas, the chickpea stock and crème fraiche to the onion mixture in the pan and season with salt and pepper. Bring this almost to the boil, before removing from the heat and tipping in the broccoli. Give this all a good mix and pile it into a baking dish. Pat it down a bit, scatter over the mixture of cheeses and breadcrumbs and put the dish in the oven for about 45 mins. The top with be a golden to deep brown and the creamy liquid will be bubbling up around the edges.
Wait until the bubbling has subsided and leave the dish a few minutes more before digging in and ladling into warmed bowls.
This is one substantial dish and will be enough to feed 4 people. Make sure you have some fresh and chewy bread for mopping up the creamy juices.