Sunday, February 17, 2008

something from nothing

Sunday evening, five pm. I am at Matt and Nathaniel's. Nathaniel is not home, and neither Matt nor I want to make a trek to the supermarket in the bitter cold. We will fashion dinner from whatever is in the fridge, supplemented by whatever is in the pantry.

The fridge is filled with various odds and ends, the result of having three, sometimes four people doing the grocery shopping. We're not in dire shape: there are eggs and milk, and a Tupperware container of lardons left over from baking tarte flambée. We could have omelettes, but perhaps we could do better.

The contents of the crisper drawer are past their prime. Wilted celery, softening carrots, one lonely bell pepper. A bag of mixed herbs, mostly dried out. A rummage through the cheese drawer turns up a wedge of stale cheddar, and a piece of Parmeggiano-Reggiano that is little more than rind.

The contents of the pantry are slightly more promising. We have canned tomatoes and plenty of pasta. There's a bag of onions and several heads of garlic hiding in one dark corner. There are cans galore: black beans, red beans, white beans... no, not beans. Chickpeas.

I know what I'll do.

I'll trim the worst of the wilt from the celery and carrots, and dice them up along with a large onion. The French call this mirepoix; the Italians call it soffrito.

I'll sauté the lardons with a few cloves of garlic in a big pot, and when they've rendered up their fat, I'll add the soffrito and some of the mixed herbs. I'll cook this mixture until it smells fragrant and the onions have turned translucent.

Then I'll add the two cans of chickpeas, and the piece of Parmiggiano-Reggiano rind. I'll cover everything with water, add a pinch of salt, and simmer until it becomes a hearty, flavorful stew.

I am making a Roman peasant dish called ceci in umido, a chickpea stew that dates back to the time when tomatoes were still unknown in Europe. It's the humblest of humble dishes, turning odds and ends into a meal to keep the winter cold at bay.

The original preparation would have involved a few handfuls of soaked dried chickpeas, a carrot or an onion, some dried herbs, a bit of cheese rind, and perhaps, if one was lucky, a tiny piece of pork fat. My collection of ingredients is luxurious by comparison. Still, I'd like to think I'm preparing it in the spirit of the original, practicing the fine art of creating something from nothing.

Ceci in Umido

To make this vegetarian, leave out the bacon and sauté the vegetables in olive oil. This also works with white beans, and if you cook it with pasta, it becomes a whole meal in itself.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take a small onion, a carrot, and a few ribs of celery, and cut them up into small dice. Peel a few garlic cloves; you can leave them whole, or mince them, depending on your taste.

Cut a rasher of thick-cut bacon into dice (or use lardons, if you can find them), and sauté in a big pot over low heat until they render up their fat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Toss in some herbs - thyme, sage, rosemary - either fresh or dried. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is fragrant and the onions have turned translucent.

Add a can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained, and a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind. Cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the chickpeas are tender and starting to pop out of their skins. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over pasta, or couscous, or fried wedges of polenta. Also, if a sweep of your fridge yields a bunch of fresh parsley, chop up a little and sprinkle it on top.

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