The Italian region of Liguria is famous for its dramatic landscape of mountains plunging into crystal clear waters, and narrow terraced fields leading down to tiny, colorful villages precipitously perched on the edges of cliffs of which the Cinque Terre (five lands) of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore in La Spezia province are the most famous. It’s a region of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters, though the rugged terrain creates many tiny sub-regional micro-climates, and driving through it, you can go from dry scrub oak and wild thyme to olive groves to chestnut forests and back again in half an hours’ journey.
So it is that Ligurian food, like all Italian regional cuisine, reflects the landscape from which it comes, and because of this much of the local food has traditionally come from the few plants that are able to withstand the poor, dry soil, the salty air at low altitudes, and the cold at higher elevations, supplemented by seafood and, occasionally, game and poultry.
**Sorry for interrupting your reading, but I had to find a place to put this picture in. No lie, we passed this goat going about 45 mph in the Ligurian countryside and I thought I was hallucinating. I made Jonny reverse about 1/4 of a mile down a very winding, thin road to find out if I really was on drugs. This Gandolf-looking creature was smiling from behind a very primitive and small barn about 5 inches off the side of the road. I fell in love at that moment. He looked mythical!
In her recent paean to the Liguria of her ancestors, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, author Laura Schenone recalls that while things have changed in modern times, for millenia the fortunes of most of the region’s inhabitants have been directly related to the availability of chestnuts from which many staples were made — including the ubiquitous gnocchi and pasta.
Another plant that grows very successfully in Liguria’s poor soils, as they do a few hundred miles west in the rocky garrigues of Provence where they remain the principle diet of many peasant farmers and, indeed, their livestock, is the chick pea (ceci/garbanzo), and like the chestnut, Ligurians pound the dried cecis into a flour which they use to make a kind of flat bread found nowhere else in Italy save certain parts of Sicily (which is deep fried chickpea dough often used in between bread or as a snack called Panelle – we hope to make this version soon), farinata. The French have their own version of this called Socca, but today we will focus on farinata. Farinata is a kind of street food found in Liguria and can often be treated like pizza as it is often cut into wedges and can come with various toppings like onions.
While we were in Genoa last summer, we saw farinata in bakeries all over the city but, curiously, found that it wasn’t offered in restaurants, though it was probably because of the glut of delicious seafood and various pesto preparations we gorged ourselves on rather than this reason, that we missed out on trying farinata in the region of its origin. Not to be denied though, we sought out some chick pea flour (yes, I know, if weren’t such post-modern bourgeois slacker-tourists we would have pounded our own from dried beans…) at a wonderful gourmet grocers in Park Slope and proceeded to use the wonderful invention that is Babelfish to translate any number of recipes on Italian websites to find out how to make it authentically. If you can not find chickpea flour in your local grocery store, check out some health food shops, Indian and/or Middle Eastern specialty stores. Chickpea flour is a key ingredient to many Indian and Middle Eastern foods.
Regular readers will know that we strive to find and make the most authentic preparations we can, but you will also know that this kind of research often leads to the unfortunate conclusion that there is rarely only one “authentic” version. Referring again to Laura Schenone, who describes farinata as almost like a chick pea flour focaccia – crispy on top and soft and chewy underneath and baked in a wide, shallow pan in a brick pizza oven, we found that this conflicted with our recollections and other recipes we had come across for thinner, almost completely crispy flatbreads. In fact, what we discovered was that the longer the cooking time and the less batter you add to your skillet, the crisper the farinata. Like, duh, right? For a more baked polenta-like consistency underneath with a crisp top, I would recommend pouring enough batter so that it is 1/2-deep and cooking our recipe for 1/2 the time, possibly finishing it off under the broiler for a few minutes. The recipe below will be for a crispy version of farinata – one that almost can crack like a cracker.
**Window shopping in Genoa – check out the farinata being served in the upper right-hand corner
We would like to try the softer version so we can decide which we prefer. Regardless, we thoroughly enjoyed the crispy, thinner and darker bread with its nutty, salty flavor that we made and are enthused to attempt the latter as soon as possible.
Typically, farinata is eaten either alone or dipped in good Ligurian olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, whereas we decided to use it almost as a canvas for a rather overly decorative carpaccio of zucchini (courgette) with pine nuts, shaved pecorino, and lemon juice. We encourage you to make yourself a farinata or two (preferably not in the hot months as we did, unless you have a good AC!) and eat it anyway you like, reminding yourself, yet again, that peasant food made from humble ingredients is almost always good, and because that’s often all there was/is to eat, it has to be.
CRISPY FARINATA (LIGURIAN CHICKPEA FLATBREAD) WITH ZUCCHINI CARPACCIO SALAD – (makes about 1 12-inch farinata)
Ingredients for farinata:
- 1 1/4 cup of chick pea flour
- 1 1/2 cups of water (maybe a bit more to get the consistency somewhere between whole milk and lite cream)
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (or enough to cover your pan)
- plenty of freshly ground black pepper
- 6 sage leaves, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon of chopped rosemary (optional)
Ingredients for zucchini salad:
- 1 large zucchini, sliced into paper-thin slices using a mandoline
- 1 ripe roma tomato, sliced into small dice
- 2 tablespoons pignoli nuts (pine nuts)
- 1 scallion (spring onion), sliced into thin rings
- 3 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
- 1 salted anchovy filet
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- pinch of salt and black pepper
What to do:
- Sift your chickpea flour in a bowl and add your salt, pepper, sage and rosemary. Stir generously.
- Slowly add your water, whisking the whole time allowing everything to be incorporated (again, you want the batter to be about the consistency of whole milk/light cream).
- Allow your batter to rest for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight.
- When you are ready to cook, preheat your oven to 425 degrees. If any foam has surfaced on your chickpea batter, remove with a spoon.
- Pour olive oil into your 12-inch baking pan – preferably a cast iron skillet. You want the olive oil to generously coat the bottom and sides of your skillet. Add your batter until it is about 1/4 of an inch if you want it super crispy or 1/2 inch deep if you want it thicker and possibly softer.
- For a crispier farinata, bake for about 30 minutes. Check on it, though, as ovens differ and you do not want the batter to burn! If you want it a bit softer, I would recommend baking for about 15-17 minutes and then finishing it under the broiler for a minute. Allow to cool before cutting!
- Slice zucchini into very thin, long slivers using a mandolin or a very sharp chef’s knife and thinly slice/dice your other veggies. Arrange everything on top of your farinata and sprinkle with pine nuts.
- Using a mortar and pestle, pound the anchovy and the mustard together and squeeze in the lemon juice and then mix well. Immediately before serving, whisk in the olive oil to make the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle all over the zucchini carpaccio and farinata.
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