It started in Bologna. At Ristorante Da Fabio, they serve a salad of celery and parmigiano. That’s it. Dressed every so slightly with olive oil and lemon juice, it is the most exposed dish one could possibly imagine. When I take clients there, it always makes the deepest impression of any of the dishes. How could something so minimalistic provide so much flavor?
I had a similar experience recently at Razza, in Jersey City. I was with my son Peter, who loves chickpeas but is not an adventurous eater, and we ordered a little appetizer of chickpeas with scallions and parmigiano. Like the salad at Da Fabio, every aspect of the little minimalistic dish was perfect.
Both dishes inspired me to create a chickpea salad that would feature celery. It differs quite a bit from the dishes that inspired it (no parmigiano for example), but the defining concept is the same: a minimal number of ingredients assembled in perfect balance and harmony. It’s the sort of thing that inspires me most as a cook.
Here’s the version we settled upon for service at the restaurant last month. Perhaps it’s not quite as minimalistic as the dishes that inspired it, but it’s close. A big part of its success is dependent on the fresh celery we grow on the farm. This is not the mild, watery celery from California. It has intense aroma and a profusion of leaves, perfect for chopping fine and including in the salad. If you know anyone who grows celery, using fresh, local, aromatic celery will certainly enhance the dish. But if store-bought is the best you can do, be at peace with it. Ditto for the chickpeas. The best are bought dried, soaked overnight, and boiled until tender. But if you need to use canned chickpeas, don’t beat yourself up! Just make sure to get a good brand. To me, Goya is the best: perfectly seasoned and properly tender.
If you don’t owe a scale, go buy one now! It’s the best $30 you can spend for your kitchen. Makes things simpler and more accurate.
Chickpea Salad with Celery and Leeks (makes 6 appetizer servings)
If using dried beans, soak them overnight if possible to reduce the cooking time. In the morning, replace most of the water with fresh, add salt, bring to a gentle boil, and simmer very gently until tender. Make sure to season the beans properly!! 1 pound (450 grams) of dried beans requires about 1 tablespoon of salt and will yield about 2.5 pounds (1125 grams) of cooked beans. I cook my beans covered and then remove the lid near the end and reduce the water until it’s just above the level of the beans. If soaked, they should take 2 to 3 hours to become tender, but you need to check to be sure. Don’t go by the clock.
If using canned beans, rinse in fresh water. If they’re not tender enough, boil them for a bit. If not seasoned properly, fix it.
To make the salad, combine about 375 grams cooked chickpeas with 50 grams chopped celery and 50 grams chopped leeks (or scallions). Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 heaping tablespoon lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried hot pepper, 50 grams olive oil, and a generous bit of chopped celery or parsley leaves.
The salad can be served at once or allowed to steep for several hours while the flavors meld. It could be refrigerated if necessary, but I would only do it as a last resort. Just before serving, taste and correct for seasoning (salt, lemon juice, etc.) and garnish with a drizzle of fresh olive oil and possibly some freshly ground black pepper.