Sunday, August 23, 2009

Crispy chickpea and tuna salad

This is a variation of a recipe I saw on Serious Eats that I thought had some good flavors, but didn't combine them in the best way to really bring them out. You might disagree so take a look at the original too if you think you might want to make it. ... Now that I look back on that recipe, I see that they adapted from Nami-Nami who got it from Pertelote who posted what I presume to be her original creation back in May '05. Her version; with its dried chickpeas, copious roasted piquillo peppers and smoked paprika; is rather different than what I made, but sounds pretty darn good, so clearly this is a dish amenable to variations. Here's mine:

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1 handful small red and yellow bell peppers (or one standard-sized pepper), thinly sliced
1/2 roasted red pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
2 teaspoons hot paprika
1 4-5 ounce can tuna, flaked and, if not packed in its own juices or olive oil, drained [I'm a recent convert from supermarket pouch tuna to canned bonito del Norte tuna from the local Spanish market. The top brands, like Ortiz, can get pretty pricey, but the cheaper ones are still pretty good.]
2 Tablespoon champagne vinegar
1 large handful flat-leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped
Salt and, optionally, pepper

1. Heat half the olive oil in an 8-inch non-stick or cast iron pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the whole spices, chili flakes and the chickpeas. Cover with splatter screen because all three will start to pop. Cook, stirring frequently, until chickpeas are a deep toasty brown--maybe five minutes. Remove to a bowl, including the spices, but leaving as much oil as possible. Add a good pinch of salt, mix well and try to restrain yourself from eating them like popcorn. Or forget the rest of the recipe and eat them like popcorn; That's a fine choice too.

2. Turn the heat to medium-low and add the rest of the olive oil, the onion, the fresh peppers and another pinch of salt. Sweat for ~10 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent, turning down the heat if it starts to brown. Add the roasted red peppers and paprika a few minutes from the end.

3. While the onions and peppers are cooking, put tuna, parsley and vinegar in a large bowl. When the vegetables are ready, dump them in and scrape out the pan into the bowl. Stir to combine. Mix in the chickpeas just before (adjusting the seasoning, and) serving to maintain their crispiness.

Both the chickpeas and the whole spices give a nice extra crunch to the textures of the salad, and the cooked chickpeas have the light, slightly puffed texture that good french fries can get from the escaping steam. It's personal preference if you prefer that to the creaminess of raw chickpeas; I know what my choice is, particularly against the softness of the soft sweated onions and peppers and the unctuousness of the olive oil.

The salad is fragrant with spices and bright with the vinegar and fresh with parsley. Those three elements are blended together into a backdrop to the earthy chickpeas, whose flavor have been deepened and rounded out by the toasting, sweet tuna and savory peppers. There are nice moments when you crack open a fennel or cumin seed, boosting that flavor and changing the whole character of that mouthful. I also suspect that the sauce would be a mucky sludge if all those spices were in powder form so I'm pleased to have avoided that.

If there's a weakness here, it's the tuna which has a little trouble standing up to the other elements and only pokes up its head when you find a particularly large piece. There's nothing about these flavors that requires fish; beef or lamb would be a nice substitutions. Or, if you wanted to go vegan, firm tofu's texture would work and it should absorb the flavors nicely.

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