Recipe: Roasted Chickpeas with Garlic and Rosemary
I think we have to face a fact: The San Gennaro feast in Little Italy is a crashing bore. When Johnny Boy proclaimed in Mean Streets, ”I hate this feast with a passion,” I could feel his pain. I’m sure at some point, maybe back in 1966 when it first started, the feast was fun (unless, of course, you lived upstairs from it). Even back when I first attended, in the 1970s, we could at least win the “basket of cheer,” full of cheap Chianti and lupini beans—and they didn’t mind if teenagers opened the straw-basket bottles and drank on the streets. Those were the days. And then the neighborhood holy men, all boozed up, would drag out the metallic San Gennaro statue, green-face from wear, and start their dinky procession, accompanied by a four-piece Little Italy band that sounded like it was playing kazoos and tin cans when in fact it was holding real instruments like trumpets and drums. This was mesmerizing. There was the arancini lady, who set up a folding chair and sold rice balls, at the corner of Hester and Mulberry. I even saw Frankie Valli perform there once, perched up on a little wooden platform, right next to the arancini lady. All this is certainly better than the generic New York street fair the feast has morphed into. I understand that not many Italians still live in the neighborhood, and they say that’s the main reason the charm has drained away. It’s sad really. It makes me long for old Napoli, where the feast has its Catholic origins.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius in English) is the patron saint of Naples, and the city celebrates his feast day on September 19 (and just on that one day, not on the eleven frigging days they drag it out over here). There are elaborate religious processions through the streets, but the real focus, as far as I’m concerned, is the celebration of the city’s beautiful street food. Not great diet food (and we always have to consider these things, here at Skinny Guinea), but fabulous nontheless.
If you like things fried, as I do, Naples does them better than anywhere else. At the feast you can get batter-fried zucchini flowers, calamari, artichokes, eggplant, even fried cow’s brains. Or a slice of Naples’s famous pizza margherita. Or you might require calzone stuffed with escarole or ricotta, or pizza fritta (basically a deep-fried calzone), crocche (potato croquettes), zeppole, or a sweet, flaky sfogliatelle. While the kids eat spumoni, the old men walk the streets munching on roasted chickpeas from little bags and drinking red wine out of plastic cups. That ritual seems very austere compared with everything else going on at the feast, which makes it very appealing and romantic. You can still get roasted chickpeas at the Little Italy feast in New York, but they are as hard as pebbles and, in my opinion, almost too dangerous to eat. Like most things, if you really want them right you’ve got to make them yourself. So here is my recipe for roasted chickpeas. They’re crisp and brown outside, but with a creamy center. Not only are they delicious and crunchy, but they’re almost fat-free, and they’re a great carb choice, low on the glycemic index. With all the red wine you’ll need to ease them down, they are a health meal made in Naples. For the wine, try a glass of Campanian red, such as a Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio. Terredora is a good producer.
Roasted Chickpeas with Rosemary and Garlic
2 cups home-cooked chickpeas, drained (use good-quality canned ones if you prefer, but rinse them)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, unskinned and crushed with the side of a knife
A generous pinch of ground hot red pepper
A pinch of sugar
3 sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lay the chickpeas out on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with the olive oil. Scatter on the garlic cloves, and season everything with salt and the ground hot pepper. Toss the chickpeas with your fingers so they’re well coated with the seasoning. Spread them out again in one layer.
Roast the chickpeas until they’re fragrant and starting to brown, about 20 minutes. Pull the sheet pan from the oven, and scatter on the rosemary, and sprinkle on the pinch of sugar. Toss quickly, and put back in the oven for another 5 minutes or until the chickpeas are browned and crunchy-skinned but still have soft centers. Let them cool on the sheet pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.