I’ve gradually transitioned to working from home over the past couple of years. This means minimal commuting and to my great relief, far less office politics to put up with. There’s no more need to fill a lunchbox with a pre-made lunch the night before either. And let’s not forget those occasions when I was too tired to do the above task and had to rely on a trayful of food from the mensa or a bar near my former workplace at the opposite end of Turin. Instead, on mornings when I am not teaching English or giving cooking classes, after the school run, I make my way to the market in Corso Brunelleschi and buy the fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables necessary to keeping my family and I fed for the next couple of days.
Lunch for me then has to be a relatively quick and unfussy affair, especially if I’ve got teaching duties to attend to afterwards. Eggs poached in tomato sauce is a favourite for this purpose, as is pasta with a pesto I may have prepared the day before in the fridge. Lately though, the fresh parsley and spring onions readily available in Corso Brunelleschi have been beckoning me to pair them with bite-sized morsels of chickpea flour polenta in a dish known in its home region of Liguria as panissa (not to be confused with the Piedmontese rice dish I wrote about a few years ago).
Italy is home to several regional specialties calling for chickpea flour. Chickpeas or ceci, after all, have been a protein-rich source of sustenance across the Mediterranean for several millenia. There’s farinata, the unleavened oven-baked flatbread I’ve written about before. The Sicilian capital of Palermo – home to a variety of deep-fried delights sold in the city’s characteristic friggitorie or fry-shops – is famous for panelle, its chickpea flour and parsley fritters. And then there is Ligurian panissa, which is a sort of cousin to its Sicilian counterpart. Made by preparing chickpea flour, water and salt into a sort of polenta, it is then transferred to a greased baking dish. After leaving it to cool until set, it is cut into slices which are either deep-fried in oil (like panelle) or eaten cold in a salad alongside spring onion slices and finely chopped parsley.
Much as I love deep-fried foods, I don’t really like performing this task everyday, nor the clean up afterwards. Just in case you do like this idea though, here’s a handy guide on how to dispose of leftover frying oil properly. Never, ever pour leftover oil after deep-frying down the drain! It’s bad for your pipes and even worse for the environment. So I rarely make my panissa fried. Instead, I’ve found a way to make this salad one of my go-to work-from-home lunches a practical and relatively easy task.
My ritual for work-from-home panissa salad making goes like this. The night before, I make my own chickpea flour by grinding dried chickpeas in my Thermomix. (Incidentally, I stopped buying chickpea flour when I got this handy kitchen tool a few years ago and this means I can make flour from less common varieties of the legume, such as those sublimely nutty black chickpeas cultivated in Puglia and Basilicata). I then set aside 150 g of the resulting flour in a bowl and add a good pinch of salt to it. As per the traditional recipes calling for a 1:3 flour to water ratio when making panissa, I bring 450 g water to boil in a high-sided saucepan. After lowering the heat, I add the chickpea flour and salt in a slow and steady stream. There begins the arm muscle-building task of constant stirring so no lumps are formed while cooking. When I’m satisfied with its thickness and consistency, I then transfer the resulting polenta to two small ceramic square-shaped baking dishes (these measure 12 x 12cm, by the way) that I’ve greased lightly with olive oil. Once the polenta has cooled to room temperature, I cover it with cling film and leave it to set completely in the fridge overnight.
The next day, after taking Miss C to school, I buy the spring onions and parsley required for panissa salad at the market. Once I get home, I wash and dry these very thoroughly (as I’ve been instructed to do by the medical caregivers following my pregnancy). I take one of the smaller spring onions I’ve bought, slice it very finely and leave it to macerate in vinegar or lemon juice until I’m ready to eat in a couple of hours (I absolutely adore onions but completely raw ones are difficult for me to digest without performing this task).
Once I’ve attended to work and household tasks requiring attention (lesson prep, plant-watering, hanging washing to dry, work-related messages, phone calls and emails), I grab a generous handful of the washed and dried parsley, remove its thicker stems and chop it as finely as I can. I remove one of the two square-shaped ceramic trays from the fridge (the other one will remain inside for the following day’s lunch!), the cling film covering it and turn it upside down onto a chopping board. Using a sharp, damp knife, I slice the set polenta square into smaller-sized morsels (lately, it’s been the tiny triangles pictured). These are then transferred to a bowl, alongside the drained onion slices, minced parsley, condiments and seasonings.
I toss these all gently until well-combined and serve myself a large spoonful on a dinner plate. I cut myself a thick slice of sourdough bread to accompany my insalatona or large salad. Well ok, two or three. I am a lover of healthy, unrefined carbs after all. For half an hour, I make the effort to stay seated, enjoy the food I’ve made myself and try not to think about any work and household-related tasks still to attend to…
Ingredients (serves 2 as a piatto unico, 3-4 as an antipasto)
For the polenta
- 150 g chickpea flour
- a pinch of sea salt
- 450 g water
- extra virgin olive oil, for greasing baking tray/s
For the salad
- 1 large spring onion
- 1 large handful of flat-leaf parsley
- extra virgin olive oil, as needed
- freshly squeezed lemon juice, red wine or apple cider vinegar, as needed
- fleur de sel or flaky sea salt, to taste
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring water to boil in a saucepan. Lower heat and add chickpea flour and salt in a slow and steady stream. Stir constantly to avoid the formation of lumps and cook over low-medium heat for about 20 minutes or until chickpea flour mixture has thickened and starts to inch itself away from the sides of your saucepan.
Pour mixture into a lightly-oiled baking dish (I use two small square-shaped ones measuring 12 x 12 cm each) . Spread mixture out evenly to a thickness of about 1 to 1.5 cm. Pat down with a wet spatula or hands for a smooth surface on top. Leave to cool until completely set, about 2 hours. Alternatively, once at room temperature, cover and leave it to set overnight in the fridge of not using right away.
Meanwhile, prep your spring onion and parsley by washing and drying them very thoroughly. Slice the onion into very fine rings and mince the parsley. Leave the onion rings to macerate in freshly squeezed lemon juice or vinegar for 2 hours.
Turn baking dish upside down onto a chopping board and remove the set polenta square or rectangle. Slice into smaller, bite-sized rhombuses, cubes (or the triangles I opted for in the photos!).
Drain the onion rings of the lemon juice or vinegar but reserve their liquid. Place the panissa cubes in a salad bowl, along with the finely sliced spring onion, the minced parsley, the extra virgin olive oil and some of the lemon juice (or vinegar) you used to macerate the onions. Season with salt and pepper and toss gently until all ingredients are well-combined. Serve immediately as an antipasto or piatto unico (one-dish-meal).
As I mentioned earlier, I try not to overdo it with the deep-frying. As they say in Italian though, ‘fritta e’ buona anche una ciabatta’ (meaning ‘even a slipper is good deep-fried’). I must say, I agree with the sentiment. So, for those of you who’d like to try their hand at making panissa this way, here are the recipes of my fellow food bloggers Lisa and Sarah. If you’d prefer a healthier variant, here is former Genoese resident Lisa Posatka’s recipe for an oven-baked version.
Also, if you care for another taste of Liguria, you may want to check out my final recipe for Italy Magazine for the time being (I’ll be taking the next few months off to prepare for and enjoy being with my baby girl), the uniquely unleavened yet delicious Focaccia di Recco. In this article, I recount the history of the sublime and irresistibly cheesy focaccia that began winning over summer visitors to the Ligurian coast in the 1950s. I also share a few tips for ensuring that those layers of dough are perfectly paper-thin and transparent. Trust me, it does get easier with practice!