Recipe: Pasta e Ceci with Saffron and Leeks
Two flavors, when blended, can sometimes produce a third taste that is entirely new and even unexpected. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And even an old cook like me (I think seasoned is the word), someone who has experimented with herbs, spices, and aromatic vegetables for a long time, can be surprised. That’s pretty wonderful. In recent posts I’ve talked about mixing rosemary with allspice, mustard with anchovies, and marjoram with fennel seeds. Each of those pairings produced a third taste that I couldn’t have completely predicted. Today I want to tell you what happened when I paired rosemary with saffron.
Saffron isn’t a spice I would automatically include in a cucina povera dish such as pasta e fagioli. It seems a tad high-end. I often add rosemary or sage to my fazool and leave it at that. This time I did use rosemary, but—and I think this happened because the cecis made me think of North Africa—I also added a bit of saffron. I can’t recall previously blending the two flavors, but the taste was sensational. Both ingredients have a distinct bitter edge, and I’m certain that had I overdone it with either or both the results wouldn’t have been as alluring. But in small amounts this mingling produced a bittersweet exotic perfume with a fullness of flavor that surprised me. I feel that the saffron took the sharp edge off the rosemary, and the rosemary made the saffron taste a little sweet. If I were served this dish without knowing what was in it, I’m not even sure I could pick out the two tastes. Just separating them was even hard, despite the fact that I knew very well what was in there. Now, I’m sure the leeks and pancetta contributed to the lushness, the roundness of this particular pasta, but despite all the competition, this new, third flavor really pushed through.
Pasta e Ceci with Saffron and Leeks
(Serves 4 as a main course pasta)
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas (I’ve been liking Goya lately), rinsed and dried
Extra-virgin olive oil
About a dozen saffron threads
¼ pound chunk of pancetta, cut into small cubes
2 medium leeks, well cleaned and trimmed, cut into small dice
2 medium celery stalks, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
3 sprigs rosemary, leaves well chopped
A splash of dry white wine
1 cup good chicken broth (homemade, if possible)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ditali or penne corte
A big handful of flat leaf parsley, leaves lightly chopped
A chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Spread the chickpeas out on a sheet pan. Toss them lightly with olive oil and a little salt. Roast until they’re very lightly golden and just starting to look firm, about 20 minutes. I find this concentrates the flavor of canned chickpeas and improves their texture.
Put the saffron threads in a small sauté pan, turn the heat to very low, and warm them, just until they dry out. Now grind them to a powder in a mortar and pestle.
Put up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a good amount of salt
In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté until it’s crisp but not too browned. Add the leeks, the celery, and the rosemary, and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Drop the pasta into the water, and give it a quick stir.
Add the chickpeas to the skillet, season with a little salt, and sauté until they’re coated with flavor, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the wine, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth and the saffron, and simmer for a minute or so to blend all the flavors.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large, warmed serving bowl. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of fresh olive oil, and toss. Add the ceci sauce, the parsley and the celery leaves, and a few big grindings of black pepper. Grate on a little pecorino Toscano, and toss again. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table.