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COOL FOOD : Garbanzo Journalism

August 20, 1992|COLMAN ANDREWS

Beans--garbanzo beans, fava beans, blackeyed peas, limas, white beans, red beans, pintos and the like--have traditionally been available, in American markets, only in preserved form: dried, canned or frozen. There's nothing wrong with dried beans, of course, and even frozen or canned ones are sometimes perfectly usable.

But in recent years, fresh beans, especially favas and limas (and occasionally black-eyed peas), have started showing up around here--primarily in the city's ever-expanding farmer's markets, but occasionally in supermarkets too. And guess what? Not only do they cook much faster than dried beans, but they mostly taste quite different--better--than preserved beans. I'd go so far as to call them a wonderful "new" culinary resource.

Unfortunately, fresh beans almost always take a lot of work. Peas, a relative of beans, pop out of their thin, crisp pods quite easily--which is probably why they've long been sold fresh. Limas, on the other hand, have thick, cushiony pods that take strong pressure to undo and never open neatly. Black-eyed peas are enclosed in sheer, tight casings that burst open readily if they're dry enough, but that cling for dear life to the peas inside if they're the least bit greenish. Favas usually aren't too hard to coax from their pods, which are a bit like thicker, mushier versions of peapods; but unless you're going to cook them an unfashionably long time (as the Spanish and Italians, incidentally, are quite happy to do), you have to slip them out of their skins as well--a procedure that involves parboiling and then a good deal of gentle one-at-a-time bean-squeezing.

It's hardly surprising, then, that to a lot of people, fresh beans (apart from green beans) simply aren't worth the trouble. I am not, however, one of those people. The flavor and texture of fresh beans, to me, are more than ample recompense for the necessary labor. And thus, when I recently encountered fresh garbanzos for the first time in my life, at my local growers market, I didn't think twice about grabbing them.

Garbanzos, also called chick peas (from the same Latin root as the Italian ceci and the French pois chiches), are widely eaten throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, India, and Central and South America. Domesticated as early as 5000 B.C.--they were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon--garbanzos are particularly suited to dry climates, requiring very little water to flourish. This explains their especial popularity in arid Spain and in the deserts of the eastern Mediterranean.

High in carbohydrates, protein, and various beneficial minerals, garbanzos are also quite versatile. They plump up all manner of soups and stews and hotpots. Mashed up, they're the basis of falafel, and pureed and seasoned they yield hummus. The crepe-like socca and farinata of Nice and Liguria, respectively, are made with garbanzo flour.

The great Roman orator Cicero is said to have taken his name from cicer , the Latin word for garbanzo, because he had a cicer- shaped wart on his nose. Garbanzos even figured in one of the more infamous moments in European history, the so-called Sicilian Vespers--a bloody uprising by the Sicilians against their French rulers on Easter Monday, 1282. To escape mob violence, many of the French on the island disguised themselves as natives. To weed out these imposters, the real Sicilians asked them to pronounce the local dialect name for garbanzos, ceceri. The French were incapable of pronouncing the word correctly, invariably accenting it on the last syllable instead of the first. For this error, they were slain.

Anyway . . . The fresh garbanzos I found at the farmers' market were $5 a bale, and I do mean bale--a big twine-bound bundle of whole uprooted garbanzo plants, each about two feet long. The whole package measured approximately three feet across and two feet high. In other words, I'm talking roughly 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 didn't shake off. If I tried grabbing a handful of adjacent ones, I'd get not just the pods but a ration of stems and leaves--which looked rather like oversized, deckle-edged thyme--in the bargain. About all I could do, then, was to pick them 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. (I'm not sure what the source of the blackness was, but it wasn't pesticides; these were organic garbanzos.)

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