Recipe: Minestra with Cicerchie, Lamb Shank, and Rosemary
Cicerchie are small dried beans that look to me like old rotten teeth but are in fact an older, more primitive form of ceci beans. Aside from looking like beaten, yellowed teeth, what they most resemble, in the bean department, are miniature dried favas, or even posole, the Southwestern American preserved corn kernels, if you’re familiar with those. In Umbria, Campania, and Puglia cicerchie have long been associated with la cucina povera, which is primarily why they appeal to me. Until recently they had almost disappeared in Italy, but like other heirloom foods that have been rediscovered by chefs and farmers, they’re now available again, although at slightly higher cost.
Cicerchie don’t taste much like ceci to my palate. I taste a mix of dried favas and posole, with a bit of split pea thrown in. The taste is richer than your run-of-the-mill ceci. Cicerchie make a great soup and look a lot prettier once they’ve been cooked. You can also use them in salads, adding small chunks of salami, roasted peppers, and herbs, for instance, or you can mash them and reheat them with some extra rosemary, garlic, and olive oil to use as a topping for crostini. I also like serving cicerchie as a side dish, with braised broccoli rabe or escarole folded in.
I get my cicerchie from www.gustiamo.com. They’re produced by La Valletta, a family-run organic company in Umbria that uses sustainable methods to produce the highest quality heirloom grains and legumes (check out Gustiamo to see what other great stuff La Valletta produces). The company is run by Alessandro and Rosalba Cappelletti, a brother and sister team dedicated to preserving plants native to the border of Umbria and Marche. I’ve been served these beans in Umbria and also in Puglia, where they’re also gaining in popularity again.
Minestra with Cicerchie, Lamb Shank, and Rosemary
(Serves 4 as a main course soup)
1 pound cicerchie
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large lamb shank, about 1½ to 2 pounds
A pinch of sugar
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 small branch rosemary, the leaves chopped
6 allspice, ground to a powder
A generous pinch of Aleppo or another medium hot dried chili
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup dry Marsala
1 quart meat or chicken or vegetable broth, not too heavy
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
Soak the cicerchie overnight in a large pot of cool water.
Drain the beans, and put them in a pot of fresh water to cover by at least 5 inches. Bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to low, and simmer, partially covered, until the cicerchie are just tender but not falling apart. The La Valletta brand I cooked took about 1½ hours, but test from time to time to make sure. When they’re tender, add a generous drizzle of olive oil to the pot, and season with salt. Turn off the heat, and let them sit for about 20 minutes (I find this helps them soak up extra flavor). Now drain the beans into a colander, saving about 2 cups of their cooking water. Transfer them to a bowl, and give them another drizzle of olive oil and a gentle toss. Set them aside.
While you’re cooking the cicerchie you can start on the rest of the soup. In a large soup pot, fitted with a lid, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the lamb shank, and season it with a pinch of sugar. Brown it on both sides. Now add the carrot and the onion, and sauté until the vegetables have softened. Add the garlic, the rosemary, the allspice, the Aleppo, some black pepper, and a little salt, and sauté a few moments to release their flavors. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the broth and enough water to just cover the lamb. Bring to a boil, and then add the tomatoes. Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer very gently until the lamb is falling-off-the-bone tender, about 2 hours or possibly a bit longer.
Pull out the lamb shank, and let it sit until cool enough to handle. Skim the soup.
Add about 3 cups of the cicerchie to the soup (for ideas on what to do with leftover beans, see above).
Pull or chop the lamb into small pieces, discarding any fat. Add the lamb to the soup, and reheat it gently. Check for seasoning, adding more salt, hot or black pepper, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, if you like. If the soup has become too thick, add some of the bean cooking liquid (the texture is up to you, of course, but I like this soup a little loose).
Serve with crostini that have been toasted, rubbed with garlic, brushed with olive oil, and sprinkled with a little salt.
And in case you feel like dancing and singing while making this soup, check out this old Umbrian folk dance. Kind of rocks, no?