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Of Penguins and Chickpeas

A pantry staple pleasure from simpler times



Fifteen years ago, my husband and I visited New Zealand for the first time. One day we kayaked in the Kenepuru Sound, located in the country's South Island. It was a memorable day because, while paddling, I saw my first penguin: It was what's called a little penguin, a specimen of the smallest species, also called a blue penguin because of its plumage. (For the curious, adult little penguins are the only penguins with blue and white — instead of black and white — feathers.)

At the end of the kayaking tour, we spent a short time in the Portage Hotel. While waiting for our guide, I leafed through a coffee table book about New Zealand that included some recipes. One of them caught my attention, so I jotted it down, but had to leave before completing the transcription. As a result, I am unable to give proper credit for the original recipe, so I apologize to the unknown author. I am also not sure that my version is based on the complete original, since my notes, written on a scrap of paper, were hard to decipher by the time I went over them at the end of the day. In any case, my rendition works well — at least in my opinion.

Recently, as I was going through the list of articles I have written for this column, I realized that in the legume department I had not talked about chickpeas and decided to remedy that. Focus on a pantry staple happens to be particularly relevant for the times in which we are living.

My family and friends in Italy are in a nationwide lockdown, a historic first, due to COVID-19. As I write, Italians can go out to purchase food and medicines, though admission to grocery stores and pharmacies is regulated to avoid crowding inside and people in line outside must stay a minimum of 1 meter (3.3 feet) apart.

And now Humboldt County residents are ordered to shelter in place. Having extra non-perishable foods in the pantry is a generally good idea (we still live in earthquake country, for one thing). And now it's a necessity. Recipes like the one on this page offer a chance to make use of items bought to prepare for isolation or that may have been sitting on your shelves for a while.

I prefer to cook dried legumes from scratch rather than using canned ones. Cans, however, are good to have on hand for situations when cooking is not possible. I am a lover of tomatoes, particularly roasted tomatoes. When summer is only a memory or is still far into the future, fire-roasted canned tomatoes are my go-to solution. Dried fruit is also quite useful in the kitchen and dried apricots are a personal favorite.

In my rendition, I halved the amount of apricots, so the dish is not as sweet and there is more room for the flavors of cumin, onion and oregano to shine. You can serve the chickpeas with a side of polenta, particularly on days when the thermometer struggles to get to a reassuring number. Another suggestion for accompaniment (shown in the photo) is cauliflower with za'atar ("Dressing Up Roasted Cauliflower," April 11, 2019), a recipe I shared last year and a great favorite in our household. In the latter case, the ensemble is vegan.

Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Dried Apricots

Serves 4-5. Dried chickpeas must be soaked 8-12 hours before cooking. The cooking method below is derived from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison.


1 cup dried chickpeas

½ small onion, halved

2 sprigs fresh parsley

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1 bay leaf

1 4-inch piece of kombu (optional)

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ cup diced dried, unsulphured apricots

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion (about ½ pound), chopped

1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin, preferably freshly ground from seeds toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 14.5 ounce can of fire-roasted crushed tomatoes

3 garlic cloves, minced

Fine sea salt, to taste

Rinse the dried chickpeas and place them in a bowl. Add enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches and soak for 8-12 hours.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas before placing them in a saucepan with 5 cups of fresh cold water. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes, skimming off any foam that forms on the surface. Lower the heat, add the onion, parsley, peeled garlic, bay leaf and optional kombu. Simmer, partly covered, until the chickpeas are almost tender, about 45 minutes. If some skins surface, skim them out. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and continue cooking until the chickpeas are completely tender but not mushy. Remove the aromatics and drain the chickpeas, reserving the cooking broth for other uses. If you are not preparing the dish right away, refrigerate the chickpeas in an airtight container until ready for use.

Place the diced dried apricots in a small bowl and cover them with warm water.

Warm up a cast-iron Dutch oven over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion, stir, then sprinkle the cumin. Place the oregano on the palm of your hand and crush it with your fingers, then add it to the onion. Cook on low heat stirring often, until the onion is translucent. Drain the apricots, reserving the liquid. Add the chickpeas, tomatoes and apricots. Rinse the empty tomato can with ¼ cup of water (use the water drained leftover from the apricots plus more as needed) and pour the mixture into the pan.

Raise the heat to medium until the mixture starts bubbling, then lower the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, covered. Add the minced garlic and cook another 5 minutes, uncovered. Adjust the salt, then turn off the heat. Cover and keep warm until you are ready to serve — the sooner the better.

Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog She prefers she/her pronouns.

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