I’ve only ever seen fresh chickpeas twice in my life. Yet, their dried and tinned relatives reside in my store cupboard all year round and I consider them a faithful staple and quick-dish standby ingredient.
Chickpeas are one of the Mediterranean’s oldest known harvested pulses, and are a mainstay of the cuisines bordering the sea. These Sicilian chickpea fritters or panelle are supposed to be made from chickpea flour and made up like polenta. But as the flour is impossible to source here in Malta, despite our being just 90kms away from Sicily, I used whole chickpeas blitzed up and formed into soft patties that are far thicker than the slivers of panelle you’d find as street food. Health food shops might have the flour but regular tinned chickpeas make more sense; like me, you won’t be heading to Sicily into the fields to gather a chickpea harvest, nor grind it up somehow into flour!
True panelle don’t usually have added extras except for chopped flat-leafed parsley but by introducing a knock-out quality melting cheese like Scamorza and some chili and cumin puts panelle up a notch from street food to posh picnic, light lunch or drinks’ party bites without making the recipe complicated or deviating too much from its origins; Scamorza and chili both being key Sicilian ingredients, and cumin a herb that dominates Malta’s culinary history.
I can’t say I’ve seen fields of chickpeas in Malta either but some small-holders do grow them. The god-send lady who has baby-sat my son for over a decade has a family field on the outskirts of my village and she is one of the bearers of fresh chickpeas – well, semi-dried and yellowed as I’ve never received them green and growing. Villa Bologna, of pesticide-free veggie fame here in Malta, also had chickpeas this summer. I’ve kept them all season waiting for the patience to shell them or perhaps pod them is the better verb. You can prepare them as green peas, steam or boiled lightly and served tossed in olive oil, lemon, garlic and seasoned. Mint added too, just as you would to regular peas.
Chickpea fritters’ history
In Palermo, the true home of the panella, these chickpea fritters are served in a panino and are considered an Ur-alt fast-food, not to mention a staple of cucina povera, everyday cooking for farmers’ and labourers’ households. It’s grabbed kerbside and in markets like Palermo’s famed Vucciria. I suppose to an Anglophone, panelle are the Sicilian’s chip butty. The chickpea I reckon has more going for it than a potato in bread, given its protein.
Cheap, tasty and turned into an accompaniment to BBQs or as a light meal (breakfast perhaps too), panelle made from canned peas make a fritter with a thicker, coarser texture than those you’d find in Viccuria. I am not a fan of deep-pan frying so found it easy enough to toss coat in a polenta crust to emulate a fried, crisper outer.
There’s something north African about this bite too, I feel, so I added some ground cumin too. With Palermo circled by a vast bay and port, it’s easy to see the trans-Med influences in Sicilian food, just as ports and trade shaped Malta’s too. I must make a return to Palermo and this time visit Vucciria to see panelle in their glory.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
- 2 x 400g tins Chickpeasprint button transparent
- Scamorza or other melting cheese (small block)
- dried chili flakes – amount as desired
- zest of 1 lemon & juice of half a lemon
- 1 egg, medium size
- fresh-milled sea salt and black pepper
- 1 heaped tsp ground cumin
- dried oregano or thyme, a rounded teaspoon and some to sprinkle
- polenta – to coat the fritters
- A little extra virgin olive oil
- Sweet chili sauce (shop bought) or Red Bistro passata to serve
- Parmesan to grate on to serve
- Drain, rinse and shake dry canned chickpeas. Place in a food processor.
- Add all the other ingredients except the cheese. Pulse, then whiz up the chickpeas on speed two until a medium-grained paste. There’s no need to make it totally smooth.
- Sprinkle some polenta on a large flat plate. Take a small handful of the chickpea mix and form into a ball, then press flat gently between palms. Set aside and make another chickpea disc. Place some thinly sliced Scamorza on the top of one disc, then cover with the second disc. Press lightly together and then coat all sides of the fritter in polenta. I used a burger press to make my fritters which were quite deep at around 2.5cm so I could encase a good amount of Scamorza. If making appetizers, make smaller patties or balls – with the latter, simply make a dimple in the ball, press in the cheese and reform the ball.
- Cover and chill in the fridge for two hours.
- Pre-heat oven to 200°C (fan). Place fritters on a metal baking tray lined with baking parchment. Drizzle over some olive oil and bake for around 20 minutes, turning once, until crisp and slightly golden on top.