Rachel Roddy’s recipe for chickpea and spinach braise | Life and style

Every Wednesday morning, behind the counter of their stall on Testaccio market, Enzo and Lina tip 10kg of dried chickpeas into a tub and cover them with cold water. The tub sits there for just shy of two days – 46 hours later – until Friday morning, when they drain the chickpeas, now butter-yellow and fat, and toss just a little bicarbonate of soda through them. To finish, they funnel 500g portions into small, clear plastic bags, which are knotted and piled on the counter near the soaked salt cod, ready for customers who still observe, or simply like, the Roman habit of eating a meatless, chickpea-centred meal on Fridays.

“Two days? That is bonkers,” said a friend when I told her I had discovered the secret of plump chickpeas on the far-side of Testaccio market. “Forget soaking: cover them with boiling water for an hour, drain, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer them for two” was her surefire method. Another friend suggested a four-hour soak and a pressure cooker was the way to go, while my neighbour swore by an eight-hour soak followed by a three-hour simmer, with or without bicarbonate. Trusted books are equally opinionated and disparate, an arc of suggestions from no soaking needed, to a times table of chickpea timings, 2, 4, 8, 48, some categorical that you must change the soaking water before simmering (it is toxic) and others very clear that you mustn’t (it is nectar).

Of course, the answer to all this is to stop asking for advice and to figure out a method of my own. And for years I did have one. It may not have been surefire, but it was pretty sure: an overnight soak and then a juddering simmer until done. Then I cooked a few not-so-happy batches, as did a few readers – more than any other ingredient, I have had emails and notes about the curse of the still-hard chickpea. So I decided I would do a Felicity Cloake and test all the various ways, to come up with the perfect one. The thing is, this many possible combinations to test meant cooking more chickpeas than even we could eat, and my experiment quickly unravelled. My default position is to trust in Lina, with a degree of variation: a 24-48 hour soak, a light bicarbonate rub-through and simmering until the chickpeas are soft enough to squish into an almost-hummus between your fingertips (which isn’t very long if you have soaked Lina style).

Soaking and cooking gives you that cloudy, slightly viscous cooking liquid, which provides a gently flavoured broth for soups, stews, or today’s dish of chickpeas and spinach, an Armenian dish called nivik from Tess Mallos’s 1979 Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook (in which, by the way, she suggests an overnight soak followed by a two-hour simmer in the soaking water). I knew this recipe would be a favourite the moment I read it (helped, no doubt, by Reg Morrison’s wonderful Technicolor photo). Tess suggests eating this with bread and pickles, and I do, although it is just as good with rice or a grilled lamb chop.

Tender chickpeas are crucial for this dish: they need to succumb willingly to the back of a fork, not ping across the room, so I’d suggest cooking them according to Lina’s method (make a double batch). If you’d rather stick to your own method, please leave comments/advice: I agree with Laurie Colwin in believing that, next to eating and cooking, talking and writing about eating and cooking are two of life’s delights. One home cook giving another advice really does make the cooking world go round.

Chickpea and spinach braise

300g dried chickpeas
1 pinch bicarbonate of soda
750g spinach
1 large onion
, peeled and diced
8 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste or 100ml passata
Salt and black pepper
Sugar, to taste

Cover the chickpeas with cold water and leave to sit for 24-48 hours (which is why it is worth soaking a double quantity and keeping half for another dish). Drain and cover the chickpeas with at least 5cm clean water, and an optional small pinch of bicarbonate of soda, bring to a boil, skimming with a slotted spoon until the water is clear, then simmer for one to two, until the chickpeas are very tender. Leave to cool in the cooking liquid. Wash the spinach, discard any tough stems or discoloured leaves, and chop roughly.

In a saucepan with a lid, fry the onion gently in the olive oil until translucent and soft. Add the tomato, a pinch of salt, a grind of black pepper and a tablespoon of sugar. Stir, then add the drained chickpeas – retain the cooking liquid.

Add the spinach and a little of the chickpea cooking liquid to the frying pan, stir, cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until the spinach has wilted. Uncover and cook for another 5-10 minutes, adjusting the seasoning to taste. The final dish should be moist, but not wet, so add a little more chickpea cooking water if needed. Serve hot, warm, or cold.

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