Sunday, January 09, 2005

Socca in Ottawa (and Montreal)




About ten days ago, Michelle and I happened to pass through Ottawa. We were there on family business, but we managed to tear ourselves away in order to (finally) pay a visit to our friends Ira, Shawna, and Saidye. We only really had time for afternoon tea and some holiday season catching-up, but we somehow got treated to all kinds of impressive snacks in the short time we were there. The showstopper came a couple of hours into our visit, shortly after Shawna suddenly asked us if we’d be interested in some homemade socca. Socca is one of the local specialties in Nice [see “Highlights: Nice” for tales of socca, pan bagnat, salade Niçoise, and other delights], and Shawna knew full-well that I was a fan because she and Ira had imparted all kinds of Nice-related wisdom to me before I made my trip there—including “Have some socca!,” if memory serves me right. When I got back we’d bonded in Montreal over our collective Niçois culinary experiences. So Shawna ran off to the kitchen and literally minutes later she ran back in with the first of three of those lovely chickpea flour crèpes. She served them as they should be served—with the best olive oil you have on hand drizzled on top, and sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt (in this case, we were treated to Alziari olive oil and fleur de sel)—and with four of us there, we made short order of them. I had come back from Nice with a recipe for socca, but I hadn’t really thought of making them myself until that afternoon in Ottawa. At Ira and Shawna’s, everything fell into place. There was something about having socca—its uniqueness, its warmth—that made Nice seem not so far away in spite of the geographic and climatic distance separating us.

The recipe Shawna made came from a special issue on Nice put out by Bon Appétit four or five years ago. The method is quite different from the way socca is made in Nice—it involves frying and baking, whereas in Nice the dish is only ever baked—but Bon Appétit said that they’d made changes to the recipe because of the unavailability of Provençal chick pea flour in North America. They claimed that this recipe worked best with the type of chickpea flour available on this continent. The results are quite different from the socca you get in Nice, too—it tends to be thinner and crispier there, almost like an Indian dosa, whereas this recipe results in a somewhat puffier pancake—but what really matters is the taste—the way the chickpea flour, the cumin, and the olive oil come together.

Shawna’s soccas all came out perfectly—she’d made this recipe before. My results were a bit more mixed. The first one was a bit of a disaster—it tasted nice but its aesthetics were a bit wanting. The second one came out in one piece (an improvement over the first) but it still didn’t have the crisp edges it was supposed to have. The third one, however, turned out perfectly. By then I’d gotten the hang of it.

I made only one change to the recipe. I toasted whole cumin and then ground it myself with a mortar and pestle instead of using pre-ground cumin—a habit I picked up from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens cookbook (another one of our favorites).

Socca

2 cups chickpea flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp whole cumin, toasted and then freshly ground
2 cups water
1/2 cup + 9 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Olive oil, coarse salt, and pepper (garnish)

Preheat the broiler. Combine flour, salt and cumin in a blender. Gradually blend in the water and 1/2 cup of the olive oil. Blend until very smooth, about 1 minute.

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12-inch non-stick, broiler-proof skillet over high heat [note: I found medium-high worked best, but then my electric burners run hot]. Swirl the oil carefully to coat the skillet entirely. Pour 1 cup of the batter into the skillet. Cook over high heat [or medium-high] until golden brown on bottom, about 3 minutes. Transfer skillet to broiler and cook until pancake is brown and crisp around the edges, watching closely to avoid burning, about 2 minutes. Slide pancake out onto a platter, garnish with additional olive oil, a bit of coarse salt, and some freshly ground pepper. Cut into irregularly sized pieces and divide among plates. Eat while it’s hot. Repeat with remaining batter.

Serves 4-6 as a snack or accompaniment to a meal.

[Chickpea flour is available from select Italian specialty stores—we found ours at Milano in Little Italy (6862 St Laurent Blvd.). You can also find it in many Indian grocery stores.]

aj

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