Chef Monica Pope writes about eating & cooking where your food lives

When in Umbria (or in Houston dreaming of Umbria)… September 18, 2010

Cooking my beautiful Cicerchie

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, August 21st

I brought home some dried Umbrian Cicerchie (aka “wild chickpeas”) from Berkeley.   Lisa Googles Umbria for the class:  it’s one of the smallest regions in the center of Italy, just east of Tuscany, north of Rome and west of the Marches (if you imagine the map of Italy in the shape of a boot, Umbria is right in the middle of what would be the calf muscle).

These lovely dried Cicerchie are the color of chickpeas, but the shape of a fava bean.   And they are beautiful.  I decide to cook them using a stew recipe on the back of the bag, but I substitute some ingredients that I don’t have.   It is a quintessential simple recipe that I just know Alice would love.  Traditionally, you would cook the beans with salt pork, which I don’t have, so I substitute speck or smoked prosciutto from La Quercia.   Lisa looks up La Quercia.  I know it is an American salumi company located in Iowa.  But what I didn’t know is that La Quercia means “the oak” and is the traditional symbol of the province of Parma, where prosciutto has been made for 500 years.  The pigs feed on the acorns from the oak tree.  The owners of La Quercia, an American couple, lived in Parma.  For them, the name unites Iowa, Parma and Prosciutto and the oak is also a symbol of patience, integrity, persistence and beauty — values this couple are guided by.  Values we should all be guided by.

Sautéing the speck...

I start by sautéing the speck and garlic in some olive oil.  I sent two pints of cherry tomatoes downstairs to Benjy for him to blast them in the oven.  Sarah is not sure about my instructions, but I know that Benjy will understand.  We want the tomatoes to be blistered, with the peel slipping off and the flavor more concentrated from cooking them.  They will be very sweet and will break down in the stew when added.

Blasted tomatoes

I’m cooking the Cicerchie separately.  As I add a little salt to the water, I panic as I realize that you shouldn’t add salt to chickpeas, especially if they are dried because they will never cook.  I hope these cook.  I decide not to worry since I always seem to finish on time no matter what happens.  Lisa presents me with a Google picture of Cicerchie stew – it has a lot more green in it, so  I send Sarah down to visit the Secret Garden folks to get some Chinese heart-shaped spinach; I ask for 10 or so leaves, but she comes up with a bundle.

Chinese heart-shaped spinach

I love cooking this way:  keeping it simple, just a few ingredients, finishing a dish or two in less than an hour.  It would be so pleasant if I had a glass of wine and some nibbles while we’re waiting.  Oh, it’s only 10:00 am, you say?  I wonder what time it is in Umbria…hmmmm.  I share with the class all the wonderful things that we have growing right now in Houston like peaches, muscadine grapes and (soon) persimmons, and so much more.

We tear off some Slow Dough ciabatta and dip it in the stew.  Now I really wish I had some wine, maybe an Umbrian red!  The stew would be really good after a couple of days in the refrigerator, too, but no one wants to wait that long.

NOTE: The recipes used in my Green Plum Cooking School classes can be found in my online cookbook, “Eat Where Your Food Lives,” available for purchase at


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