Life on the Italian Riviera
Between the sea and the mountains on the northwestern tip of Italy's boot, lies the untouched and vibrant Liguria. Aside from being home to some people you may have heard of, such as "Christopher Columbus" and Niccolò Paganini, it was also my home until just recently. It also happens to be the lesser-known twin of its neighbour, the ever-so-luxurious French Riviera. And although most know of Portofino, Cinque Terre, or even San Remo, I am often met with blank stares when I tell people I live(d) in Genova. "Geneva?", they usually respond, at best. At worst, I've received references to salami and princess movies.
Nevertheless, the relatively mysterious nature of Liguria allows it to be a haven from throngs of tourists and, although small, it is filled with countless pockets of paradise. One precious gem is a place I often trekked to, regardless of the season, to enjoy a stunning view of the bay, feel the warm sea breeze, and savour traditional Ligurian food and wine al fresco. Afterward, perhaps a long, yet relaxing, walk back to the closest town with a train station. Or, a dip into the sparkling turquoise waters followed by a short ferry ride, with a chance of spotting wild dolphins. Returning to the city at the end of the day was always welcome, if only to view the enchanting sunset over the ancient rooftops, right from our terrace.
OF CHICKPEAS AND PANISSA
Of course, it was also at this secret spot that I tried and fell in love with panissa. Panissa is nothing more than chickpea flour, water, and sea salt -- naturally (and unintentionally) gluten-free and vegan, as many Italian dishes are. It is also packed with protein and many essential vitamins and minerals, thanks to the chickpeas. In an ode to its roots, I love including the bright flavour of lemon and the warm notes of the region's typical herbs (marjoram, oregano, and thyme, to name a few). Although untraditional, it gives the panissa a true riviera feel. On that note, it must be said that over on the French riviera, there is a similar dish called panisse. In Tuscany, they have cecina and in Sicily, panelle. All of these are very similar in that they are made from chickpea flour, water, and sea salt, yet each have their characteristic way of being presented and their own culinary history. Panissa is usually served as a porridge or deep-fried, but I prefer to bake it. The result is a crunchy exterior with a smooth, creamy filling. The bite-size pieces are perfect for an aperitivo or picnic with friends, or a main dish for just a few.
PANISSA (LIGURIAN CHICKPEA BITES)
- 200 g chickpea flour
- 700 mL water
- pinch sea salt
- black pepper, to serve
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 organic lemon, zest and juice
- dried or fresh herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, etc.)
Prepare a rectangular baking dish by brushing the inside with olive oil.
In a large pot, stir together the water, salt, and if you'd like, one or more of the optional flavourings.
Put the pot on a low heat, and slowly whisk in the chickpea flour, being careful to avoid forming lumps. Continue stirring for 5 to 15 minutes, until the batter thickens. (The time is highly dependent on the dimensions of your pot, how well it conducts heat, and the power of your stove. When the panissa is ready, it should be the consistency of thick pastry cream or greek yogurt.)
Pour the panissa into the prepared baking dish. Spread to an even thickness (about 1.5 cm works well) and cover with parchment or cling film, touching the surface. Let it cool completely, either at room temperature or, better, in the fridge. It should take at least 1 hour, but likely more. (If it doesn't set, it could be that it wasn't thick enough to begin with. In that case, return it to the pot on the stove, on low heat, and stir until it thickens some more. Then, pour into an oiled dish, cover, and wait until it sets.)
Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F).
Once the panissa is set, unmold it onto a cutting board and cut into bite-size pieces. Place the pieces onto a lined baking pan and drizzle with a good amount of olive oil. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden. Flip them halfway through if you'd like a more even crispy surface.
Sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper, and enjoy.