Chickpea Crazy

The garbanzo is a pesky little thing.

I love chickpeas (which is to say garbanzos), and have bought many cases' worth of cans of them over the years, and a fair number of bags of dried ones as well. So when I happened across bales of fresh chickpeas at a California farmers' market not long ago, I couldn't resist. And bales is the right word—big twine-bound bundles, roughly three feet across and two feet high, of whole uprooted chickpea plants, each about two feet long and hung with papery beige pods about the size and shape of elongated green olives. I'm talking approximately 12 cubic feet of leguminous raw material here. And I'm talking work.

First, I had to remove the individual pods from the plants. Some plants sported a dozen or so pods, some only three or four, but they weren't clustered together like grapes, and they couldn't just be shaken off. They had to be plucked off, one at a time. This process took me almost two hours, and my hands ended up not only tired but blackened, as if by soot (but actually by oxalic acid from the leaves). Then, I started on the pods. Some contained a single bean, and I could usually pop it out with a squeeze. Others contained two beans, and had to be literally torn apart. Once I exposed them, the beans turned out to be green. That familiar yellowish chickpea color comes only with age, I realized.

I worked on the pods in shifts, over a three-night period, while my wife periodically walked by—making remarks about my mental health. A total of six hours later, I had reduced my bale to about four-and-a-half pounds of shelled chickpeas. Then came the moment of truth: I boiled some water in a big pot and tossed them in. In ten minutes, they were cooked perfectly, done through but still slightly firm. They were delicious—vaguely earthy, vaguely greenish-tasting, sort of like a cross between canned garbanzos and fresh peas. I served some that night with dinner, seasoned simply with butter and sea salt. I subsequently tossed another lot with penne pasta, prosciutto, and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, and later pushed some more through a sieve to filter out the skins, then pureed them into cold soup.

Are fresh chickpeas worth the trouble? I wouldn't have missed them for the world. But would I buy, pick, and laboriously shell a bale of the things again? Probably not. As Voltaire once said, in quite another context, "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert."