When I look back on the food that I have cooked and eaten this year, one ingredient jumps out more than any other. Chickpeas. A strange discovery really, as previously I haven’t had all that much time for the poor pulse. Houmous aside, I’ve always found them a little bland and boring, always terribly under-seasoned with a strange, soft-yet-crunchy texture. The dusty 3-year old tin in the cupboard was never in any danger of being opened. But something changed, the world tipped upside-down, and suddenly they are an integral part of my cooking.
I feel like most food disliked as a child goes through this process. It will always be avoided and ardently hated until that revelation moment, when tasted in adulthood, and it dawns that it really isn’t all that bad, and sometimes, just perhaps, it might even be nice. I went through the same with avocados, and Katie still holds the fact that I now really like them as one of her greatest victories. With chickpeas, the revelation happened around January time. I’d been reading a lot of Ottolenghi recipes, and had noted how he advised cooking them very gently, for long periods of time (sometimes 5 hours), to achieve a brilliant taste and texture. I then cooked a recipe where I experimented with slowly warming chickpeas in oil, almost like a confit, and the results were truly delicious. My mind was blown open to this new ingredient. I nearly ate about 3 tin’s worth.
From that point, I have used and enjoyed chickpeas a huge amount. Cooked and flavoured properly, they add a joyful comfort to pretty much any savoury dish; from bulking out warming stews to garnishing delicate cured fish. One of my favourite restaurant dishes this year was charred, smokey duck hearts balanced across a dollop of pureed chickpeas at the excellent Brawn. It was such a simple, yet complete plate of food, all brought together with, well you’ve guessed it…
Ok, enough of this chickpea love-in.
I do love a good kitchen tip, some small thing learned or discovered that makes a lot of difference. Most recently, this has been the brief salting of white fish prior to cooking. I was always brought up taught to season my fish only at the very last minute, for fear of dry results and a ruined meal. However, after seeing a chef doing it on the telly a few months ago, I gave it a go, and it really works a treat. Thick fillets of fish like cod, haddock or pollock are sometimes prone to holding huge amounts of moisture, giving the flesh a very mushy, flavourless texture. By lightly salting the fillets all over for just 10 minutes, this moisture is released before cooking; the flesh is firmer and deeper in flavour.
Despite looking a little complicated, the dish below is surprisingly simple. The cod and chickpeas are light and refreshing, perfect at this time of year when every other meal seems to include chocolate or cheese.
For the cod:
2 cod fillets
1 good knob of butter
For the chickpeas
400g soaked or tinned chickpeas
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 sprig of rosemary
1 lemon, zest and juice
For the razor clams:
10 live razor clams
A splash of dry white wine
For the herb oil:
1 small bunch of parsley
2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked
200ml extra virgin olive oil
The cooking liquid from the razor clams
1 lemon, juice only
For the sprout flowers:
6 sprout flowers, trimmed
4 slices of coppa
Start making the herb oil the day before serving. Put the parsley and rosemary leaves into a food processor with a pinch of seasoning and the olive oil. Blitz until the herbs are really finely chopped and everything is well combined. Tip the green mixture into a bowl, cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain the oil through a fine sieve into a clean bowl; the resulting liquid should be a vibrant green.
To cook the chickpeas, drain them well and tip into a saucepan, Add the garlic, rosemary and lemon zest and cover with olive oil. Cook very gently, without allowing to simmer, for about 40 minutes, until the chickpeas are extremely tender. Season well with salt and pepper. Using a slotted spoon, transfer about two-thirds of the chickpeas to a food processor. Add a couple of tablespoons of the cooking oil and the juice from the lemon, then blend well, adding more oil if necessary to achieve a smooth puree. Taste and season if necessary. Keep both whole and pureed chickpeas warm white you finish the dish.
Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and bring to a medium temperature. Fry the coppa and the sprout flowers together for about 5-6 minutes, until the meat is crispy and the sprout flowers are al-dente. Drain the coppa on some kitchen roll and tear into small pieces.
Take the cod fillets out of the fridge and sprinkle a little salt on all sides. Allow to stand on a plate for 10-15 minutes, then pat dry with kitchen paper.
Heat up a large saucepan until very hot. Tip in the razor clams and pour over the white wine. Cover the pan with a tightly-fitting lid and cook for about 2 minutes, until the razor clams have just opened. Remove the razor clams from the pan and shell the meat, then slice thinly on an angle. Allow the cooking liquid to cool slightly, then add 1-2 tbsp of it to the herb oil, along with a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and season if needed.
Pour a generous glug of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan and bring to a medium-high heat. Season the cod on all sides, then place skin-side down into the pan. Cook for 4-6 minutes through the skin depending on the thickness of the piece, then carefully turn over. Add the butter to the pan and use a spoon to baste the fish well. Cook on the flesh-side for 1-2 minutes then remove from the pan.
To serve, arrange the cod to one side of the plate and spoon or pipe a good dollop of the chickpea puree alongside. Scatter a couple of tablespoons of the chickpeas and the sprout flowers around. Arrange the razor clam and coppa slices into one half of a razor clam shell and position opposite the cod. Finally finish with a good amount of the herb and razor clam dressing.