Monday, February 6, 2012

Minestra di Ceci: The best thing I've eaten becomes the best thing I've cooked

Has the Nervous Cook fallen off the face of the planet? you may well have been asking yourself lately. Well, friends, the answer is a decided (and relieved, frankly!), "No," however, she has been giving her passport a bit of a workout.

Confession time: I haven't blogged in two weeks because I was too busy eating my way through Italy. Boo hoo, right?

For seven too-short days, I was traipsing around the booted country in search of the coffee culture there: Starting in the north and making my way south, I attempted to learn everything I could about espresso in its birthplace. How it's made, how it tastes, how people drink it, what it means to the daily life of the average Italian. From Venice I made my way to Florence, leaving the Tuscan hills behind then for Rome, and finally stopping in Naples.

I drank an almost ridiculous amount of coffee. In fact, I drank so much coffee I was probably lucky no one turned me in to some local governing officials as a potential danger to myself. I drank so much coffee I was halfway delirious: It took me three solid days of traveling before I managed a night's sleep lasting longer than a half hour.

And yes, it was worth every restless, jittery, slightly-queasy-from-caffeine moment.

Naturally, I did my level best to counteract the coffee with heaps and heaps of the most delicious food I could get my grubby little American paws on. In fact, "delicious" doesn't really begin to describe it: Some of what I ate over the course of that week was the most exceptional, fresh, inspired, warming, and nourishing food I could ever have imagined.

The simplest meal (panino of garlicky spinach and mozzarella) filled me joy, the most basic of ingredients (grilled eggplant, fresh bread) were elevated by the greenest-tasting olive oil I've ever experienced. Sitting alone in an empty dining room or at the end of a busy bar, walking through the streets munching an apple from a street vendor, window shopping at the endless stream of gelaterias that dotted every city: I was in heaven, and I fell in love at first bite.

Naturally, the first thing I did when I came home was attempt to re-create the most perfect thing I ate, for the benefit of Mr. Nervous, who wasn't along for the ride this time. A twist on the traditional Roman dish minestra di ceci e pasta (chickpea soup with pasta), the following is inspired by a dish I encountered in Florence, at a vegetarian restaurant I couldn't help but visit over and over (and over) during the brief course of my stay there.

Hearty and healthy, this is honestly one of the highlights—not only of the trip, but also of my life.

Make. This. Now.

1 tbs white vinegar
1 small onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped mushrooms
needles from 1 sprig rosemary, minced
salt and pepper to taste
2oz dry orichette pasta
1 cup water, plus a tad more
1 can (16.5oz) chickpeas, drained
In a medium to large stock pot, heat the vinegar over medium-low, adding the garlic and onions when it starts to sizzle. Cook until translucent (5–7 minutes), and don't worry if there are brown bits on the bottom of the pot: We'll get them later, and they'll be delicious. 

Mix in the mushrooms and cook until they start to sweat, using the liquid they release to scrape the bottom of the pot clean (see?). Stir in the rosemary, salt, and pepper, being sure to coat the mushroom mixture evenly with it. Cook for 3–5 minutes, or until the rosemary becomes very fragrant, and add the dry pasta to the pot, coating it in the slurry as well. 

Once everything is evenly incorporated, add the cup of water and allow it to come to a gentle boil, after which lower the heat and simmer for 6–8 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, toss the drained chickpeas with a bit more salt and pepper, and mash them into a paste with a fork. If desired, add a little water (up to 2 tbs should do it) to create a smoother texture. Once you've worked the clumps out, stir the paste into the soupy mixture, and bring everything back up to a gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer for another 10 minutes. Serve hot, with additional sprigs of rosemary as garnish if desired.

Serves 3.

Full disclosure: I've been home fully four days and have made this twice already, enjoying the leftovers for a few days in a row, dreaming Italian dreams… Sigh.


  1. Hi Meister,
    I'm visiting the same four cities in April. I need coffee recommendations for all of them!

    1. Only too happy to oblige! I'll zip you an e-mail. (Unless you just want to take me along as a guide?)

    2. Thanks Meister! You have my email, right?

    3. I'm 99% sure -- look for a message from me in a day or two!

  2. I'm am so entirely thrilled that you have experienced all of the joys and sigh-inducting moments of this gorgeously old country. To this day, we make our weekend coffee with our handsome steel Italian coffee maker. It only makes 2 full cups and you put it on the stove top. The coffee gurgles and spits out the top. The taste is clean and strong. It takes us straight back to Italy So happy for you and all of your newfound memories.

    1. Ah yes, the glorious stovetop coffee maker: I love them, too. I even went into a brand-new Bialetti store in Florence and drooled over everything inside, wishing I'd left more room in my suitcase...

      I'd love to hear your memories and dreams of Italy as well. What was your favorite place, what memory is the one that most often comes to mind?

  3. I just might have to try this tonight...looks like an interesting and different way to have a quick pasta dish...thanks

    1. I hope you like it! The best part is that the pasta is there but not the main attraction: Protein-packed chickpeas and earthy mushrooms are definitely in the spotlight. And garlic, of course, improves any dish vastly!

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed your trip so much... and discovered minestra di ceci. A friends' Tuscan grandma used to make it for me and it was delicious...must start making it myself. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Oh, it was phenomenal! I had such a wonderful time, I can barely even start to describe and unpack all my memories to friends and loved ones. Of course, it always comes back to food...

  5. you are so doing well with the blog upkeep! i've been home since Wed and i've yet to fully upload all my pictures! i have also yet to make a full meal & i do have a bag of dried garbanzo beans that i could use up for dinner tomorrow... so, this is sauteed in vinegar, not olive oil? i've never cooked like that before...

    i am jealous of your solo wanderings, how liberating (and apparently, jittery!).

    1. It was precisely that: Liberating. I had no choice but to sit quietly with my thoughts and myself, to recognize when I was feeling self-consciousness and ask myself why. And I longed the entire time to come home and tell everyone everything I saw, experienced, and ate!

      (I love sauteeing in vinegar sometimes: It brings out a completely different flavor in the garlic and onions, and the slight sourness is a perfect match to the piney rosemary. If you prefer olive oil or some other neutral-tasting oil, though, it would be just as delicious the more traditional way.)

      Can't wait to see your photos!

  6. Reading this brought back memories of my first solo trip to Italy and Europe. It was Italy that really stole my heart..the food ! the food ! the food!
    I never tried to recreate it but years later I was fortunate enough to meet an Italian who cooks very well...

  7. Chickpeas are my favorite legumes, thus my love for hummus. This dish sounds hearty and fulfilling. Wonderful recipe. :)

    While travelling in Italy, I had some of the most amazing tiramisu. Light, ethereal and not intensely flavored. Can't find one in NY that could match...

    1. I would love to find a comparable tiramisu. That stuff is absolutely my dessert vice!

      Thanks so much for commenting, and I totally share your love of chickpeas.


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