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Drink | GREAT MARRIAGES

Red Wine With Chickpeas

October 28, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

When the Day of the Dead comes around, families in Piedmont, the wine region in northwest Italy, celebrate by eating a hearty zuppa di ceci, or chickpea soup. Cooks may make it throughout the fall or winter, but Nov. 2 is the one day when everybody eats chickpea soup.

Part of the tradition is to offer some of the soup to poor families, the elderly and the ill so that everyone can take part in the holiday.

I first tasted the soup almost ten years ago at one of my favorite restaurants in Italy, Ristorante Cacciatori. It's in Cartosio, a small hamlet in the hills outside Aqui Terme, an old Roman spa town in Piedmont close to Liguria.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be at the restaurant at the end of October, and I watched Maria Milano, who first entered the kitchen here in 1936, make her zuppa di ceci. Her family has had the restaurant since the end of the 19th century, but records show that the family has lived in Cartosio since the 16th century. It's just she and her daughter-in-law Carla in the kitchen; her son Giancarlo takes care of the front of the house, along with grandson Massimo, and, when he's not studying in Genova, grandson Carlo too.

First thing each morning Signora Milano lights the wood-burning stove (they use acacia and oak) that sits beside the sturdy gas stove. On this hazy fall day, fog swirls outside the windows, and her two cats watch the goings-on in the kitchen from the windowsill outside. The night before, chickpeas were put to soak in abundant cold water to which a pinch of baking soda had been added. Now she puts a big pot of water over the flat iron top of the wood-burning stove and scoops the soaked chickpeas with her hands into the pot. The water should be tepid, she says, never too hot or too cold, because the legumes suffer from temperature change.

"Don't you try to rub off the skins?" I ask her.

No, she tells me, the skin gets soft with the bicarbonate of soda.

While the pot comes to a boil, she roughly chops garlic, onion, celery and carrot, the makings of tritata, the Italian version of mirepoix. Then, with the crescent-shaped mezzaluna she has used every day for more than half a century, she rocks the blade across the vegetables until everything is finely chopped. She chops a handful of parsley leaves too, and its fragrance wells up as she works.

Then, in a big skillet, she heats some olive oil and browns the tritata. Once the chickpeas have come to a boil, she skims off the surface foam with a slotted spatula. After ten minutes or so, she adds the tritata to the pot, splashing a little water into the skillet to make sure she gets up every bit of flavor--nothing is ever wasted in a Piedmontese kitchen--and then adds it back to the soup, which is vigorously cooking away.

Meanwhile, in another pan of water, she slowly brings pork riblets and pork skin to boil in order to de-fat them a little. After gently simmering them for about ten minutes, she adds them to the chickpeas.

After soaking and washing the Swiss chard, she cuts the white stems off at the base of the leaves and sets them aside for another purpose. (They might be used in a ravioli stuffing, or a savory vegetable tart. ) The chard leaves are cut into fettuccine-wide ribbons. Halfway through the cooking, she adds the mound of greens to the pot and continues to cook the soup until the chickpeas are tender--"un bel ora," she says--a good hour. (At home, my chickpeas took 2 1/2 hours before they were tender--it all depends on the freshness of the legume. I've also found that if you wait to add the chard until after the chickpeas are tender, cooking for 15 minutes more, you can better preserve their green color.)

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