A Latke Alternative With an Italian Accent
Fried chickpea fritters known as panelle are simple, versatile and easy to make ahead. What could be better for a Hanukkah party?
Italians know how to fry. During the week I spent on a food-writing retreat at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in the center of Sicily last summer, I ate a dizzying array of foods that had swum in their fair share of hot oil: carciofi fritti (fried artichokes), sardines first marinated in red wine vinegar; arancini balls of risotto; salvia (sage) leaves, and a caponata made with fried eggplant. And then there are the desserts: cassatelle (ricotta turnovers) and, of course, cannoli shells. It’s probably no surprise, then, that as the calendar approaches Hanukkah, my thoughts (and grumbling stomach) return to Sicily — specifically to the chickpea fritters called panelle, eaten as street food but also stuffed into a roll for a quick panino lunch.
As my classmates and I crowded around the stove one afternoon, Fabrizia Lanza, the director of the school, vigorously whisked ceci (chickpea) flour and salt into water. She explained, “You can find something cooked with chickpeas all along the Mediterranean coast.”
I thought of my travels over the past few years — thin socca crepes in the South of France; stewed garbanzos con espinacas in Spain; falafel in Israel.
The mixture passed through stages from lumpy to smooth and creamy to a mashed potatolike texture. Lanza swapped her whisk for a wooden spoon as the contents of the pot thickened to the consistency of polenta and pulled away from the sides as more moisture evaporated.
We quickly spread the chickpea paste onto floured dinner plates — “Paint it on; don’t push it,” Lanza warned — and let it dry until we could peel it off and cut it into wedges.
“At this point, humidity is the enemy of panelle,” Lanza said, “but you can wrap the pieces well and refrigerate them until you’re ready to fry. It’s a great way to plan ahead for a party.”
We, of course, couldn’t wait. After a quick bath in bubbling oil, where they puffed and browned, the panelle made their way to a colorful platter and, before they could pile up, into our mouths. Crispy edges yielding to soft centers, the textural contrast reminding me of latkes.
With their make-ahead ease, panelle seem the obvious choice for my Hanukkah party this year. They’re great right out of the pan with nothing but a sprinkle of salt, or — if you’re feeling fancy — topped with a dollop of herb-infused ricotta. When I tested the recipe at home, I also tucked a few leftover fritters inside a roll with some lemon-doused mustard greens for my lunch. That said, don’t count on any leftover panelle once you invite guests to your Sicily-inspired dreidel-spinning fest.
You can prepare the recipe (adapted from Fabrizia Lanza’s “Coming Home to Sicily”) in advance until Step 3 and then refrigerate the raw panelle in a zip top bag with a few paper towels to absorb any moisture, pulling out the dough when you’re ready to fry.
2 1/3 cup chickpea flour, preferably Sicilian (or Bob’s Red Mill)
3 cups cold water
Fine sea salt
Vegetable or olive oil for frying
1) Combine the flour, water and a pinch of salt and pepper in a medium saucepan and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens considerably (like a very stiff polenta). Reduce the heat if necessary to keep from burning. Cook for a few more minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan.
2) Working quickly, spread the mixture with a wooden spatula onto 4 or 5 dinner plates so that it is about ¼-inch thick. Cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
3) When the dough is cool, loosen the edges with a small, sharp knife. Peel the dough off the plates and place on a work surface, stacking one on top of another. Cut the stack into 12–16 wedges.
4) Heat 2 inches of oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the chickpea wedges in batches, and fry, flipping occasionally, unit golden and crisp, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Serve hot.
Gayle Squires is a food writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her blog is KosherCamembert.