A few months ago I was having drinks at a friend’s house up by the Place des Fêtes, outdoors on their patio, and I noticed something tucked away in the corner.
Me: “Hey! What’s that?”
Them: “What’s what?”
Me: “That! Over there…in the corner. Is that what I think it is? Oh my God!”
Them: “Oh, yeah, that. We put it in about fifteen years ago, but we never use it.”
And that, ladies and gentleman, is how I learned that my friends actually had—get this, a grill!
I didn’t think anyone here had a grill. And with the 4th of July en route, I immediately suggested we grill an all-American dinner.
I dreamed of ribs, tossing them on the fire until they’re crisp on the outside, meaty and tender within. I must confess that was going to make a green bean salad with pesto, but I broke my basil-gazing when I saw jumbo heads of pale green l’iceberg piled at the market and decided wedges of that would be plus américain with bleu cheese dressing, topped with chives and crunchy pan-fried nuggets of smoked bacon. (Except I forgot to buy the bacon, which wasn’t so bad. Believe me, there was plenty of pork that day.)
Because I’m a list-maker, I had on the list grilled polenta, too, then I remembered the delicious, crispy panisses I had in Nice and decided they’d be more fun, which we could nibble as we sipped our drinks, basking in the glow of the roaring flames of le grille parisien.
Panisses are perfect snack food, excellent served with rosé or alongside meat dishes, like they do in Provence. They sometimes get dusted with sugar, for the kiddies, although to us adults, they’re best appreciated with a cool glass of wine and plenty of coarse salt and cracked black pepper. They probably could be grilled, but fried to a crisp, they’re so good and I hate to mess with French history. They get pretty touchy about that around here.
After the batter is cooked, to form the panisses, in Jacques Médecin’s book,Cuisine Niçoise, he calls for the cook to oil a dozen small saucers and “arrange them in a neat line.”
He obviously didn’t live in a space-challenged Paris apartment, like the rest of us, where you don’t have a lot of room for extras. When you do, saucers for teacups move way down to the bottom of the list of life’s necessities.
And as much as I love you all, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of washing up 12 various dishes when one 9-inch (23cm) square cake pan did the job nicely. Sorry Jacques.
Making the panisse batter is similar to polenta, and equally difficult: you basically dump, then stir.
There are various kinds of chickpea flour available, depending on where you live. I used the coarse stuff from my local Arab market, but the Italian varieties seem to be much finer, which I think is what they use in the south of France so they have a smooth, almost custard-like interior and slick, crispy crust.
In Marseille, they fashioned the panisse mixture into thick logs, then sliced them into rounds for frying. But I like the idea of elongated fingers, although you can do as you wish. Heck, you can cut them into hearts, moons, and clovers for all I care. Just don’t tell anyone Marseillaise, or Monsieur Médecin.
Deep-frying is my recipe deal breaker. If I get to any recipe that says, “Heat 4 quarts of oil in a large kettle…”, I turn the page as fast as I can.
So the first time I tried frying my panisses (which sounds funny, but I’m sure there’s a site out there for guys into that—but this isn’t that site), I used a non-stick pan and a California-style, barest minimum of olive oil. The results were slightly charred panisses (I’m sure there’s a site for that, too) and I wanted golden-brown, lovely fingers of chickpea deliciousness like I had in Provence.
In spite of swimsuit season, I wised up and made a nice bain of olive oil, a bath if you will, and tried that. It worked perfectly. Some say panisses need to be deep-fried, but I hate deep frying at home; it seems like a waste of a lot of oil and a big mess. So I used what I would consider a considerable, but restrained amount. Just enough to get the job done.
If you’re unsure of the exact quantity, the quantity of oil in the pan should be nearly the same amount of the rosé you’re drinking as you fry them up. Which was what I did, if I remember correctly. It was hard to keep up with all that fryer oil, but I did my best.
Sources for chickpea flour:
Search natural foods or specialty food shops (specifically Middle Eastern and Indian) for unroasted chickpea flour, which is sometimes called besan or chana. If ordering online, inquire before ordering whether the flour is unroasted or not.
The Italian chickpea flour is much finer (left), and has a richer, more golden color. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to find although you may be able to find it in an Italian shop, called farina di ceci. Next time, I’m going to try whizzing my non-Italian chickpea flour in the blender to grind it finer. Also I found some wood chips in mine, so be careful and give yours a good going through.
- Bob’s Red Mill
- Chef’s Shop (Sometimes stocks Italian chickpea flour.)
- Casa dal Masso (Italian chickpea flour, by mail, in France.)Favorite books on Mediterranean cooking, which inspired this recipe:
- Made in Marseille by Daniel Young
- Cuisine Niçoise by Jacques Médecin
- Flavors of the Riviera by Coleman Andrews
- Cuisine of the Sun by Mirielle Johnson