When I was about 10 years old my teacher got our class to play a game of Chinese whispers. I'd never heard of the concept, and I'm fairly sure none of my classmates had either – and we marvelled at just how much a simple message could radically change after being whispered into just a couple of dozen kid's ears.
I remember pondering the game for a good deal of time afterwards. I came to the conclusion that the reason it all went so awry was that we were... well, just kids. Surely I thought; if grown-ups were given the same task the message would come out intact; exactly 'word for word'. Don't you just love hindsight?
It seems a human trait that there will always be a little license taken, personal slants given and different interpretations placed that will ensure a decent sized game of Chinese whispers will never be won, no matter the vintage of the players. A perfect example is recipes. Sure, plenty of recipes are printed, ensuring that they will end up similar enough no matter who makes them – but what of verbal recipes?
Professional chefs do use printed recipes, but more often than not, the best ones are passed on from colleagues. You watch another chef make a dish, you like the result and you ask for the recipe – simple as that. Most often the recipe is reeled off at machine gun pace while you are taking a quick break over coffee and a cigarette. No ceremony, just the ingredients and a highly abridged method. If a recipe passes through a few chefs in this manner you can imagine how the Chinese whispers rule will eventually take over.
Recently, I bummed a smoke off JD, the 70's rock n' roll dude and razor-sharp chef I work with. I thought I'd go for broke and ask for his chickpea soup recipe as well, seeing it was so damn good. He was true to narratively-brief chef form; "Soak your chickpeas, cook 'em, sweat leeks and garlic, simmer in stock with a spud or two, puree". I made a mental note and later set to work. Well, it took me a few attempts to get the soup just the way I like it, and only tonight – right after service, I asked JD where the soup originally came from. He has worked far and wide – including stints abroad and I assumed he got it from one of those far flung restaurants. Surprise, surprise, it turns out this wasn't the case at all. It came from a cookbook – the cookbook of a very well known TV chef no less. I won't reveal who – but let's just say that I think the soup is just pukka, mate.
JD tells me the cookbook author declares in his recipe notes that it was given to him by a colleague, who in turn got it from "some old book". No doubt there has been quite a few Chinese whispers in this recipe's lineage. Well, Jamie, the recipe has been whispered all the way out to me, and here is my version.
Before I launch into the recipe, let me tell you a little about the soup itself. I have always thought chickpea-based soups to be heavy and a little stodgy, but that certainly 'aint the case here. This soup is light enough to be almost considered elegant, yet so intensely crammed with flavour that it takes you almost by surprise. There is the delicious nuttiness of the chickpeas, generously supported by the deeply sweet flavour of slow-cooked leeks. Filling out the middle of these two wildly divergent tastes is the parmesan cheese. It also has nuttiness – along with sweet flavours – but at the same time parmesan has an intense savoury element that is not saltiness, and not simply a cheese-dominated flavour either, but a rich middle palate character that rounds this soup out to near perfection.
Part of my personal touch – my "Chinese whisper" that I have brought to this soup is fresh chickpeas. They aren't all that common, so you may well have never tasted them, but let me assure you – they are simply out of this world. They come on large, densely foliated branches laden with small pods. Each of these pods contains one or two vibrantly green chickpeas that are tender enough to be eaten raw. They are a very special ingredient indeed. If you can't locate these rare gems, fret not, for the soup will still be delicious without them all the same. However, you really should pester your greengrocer into searching out some of these spring treats for you, because a handful quickly simmered and scattered into this soup take it from sensational to near magic.
As long as you buy a good Italian brand of canned chickpeas, there will not be a big difference from soaking your own chickpeas in the final result. Of course, soaking your own will end up costing you a good deal less.
If you are using dried chickpeas, you will need to start a day ahead. Place the chickpeas in a large container and cover generously with cold water, then set in the refrigerator and allow them to soak for at least 12 hours, or overnight. Next day, drain the chickpeas and discard the soaking water. Place the chickpeas into a large pot and cover well with cold water. Place on high heat and bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cook until they are nice and soft, but still holding their shape. Depending on the age of the chickpeas this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. When cooked, drain and set aside.
If you are using canned chickpeas, all you will need to do is open the cans, drain the liquid away and set them to one side.
Cut the root ends and most of the green tops away from the leeks. Peel away the outer layer of skin if it is looking tired and ratty. Slice the leeks finely; checking to see if any dirt is lodged in between the layers near the green tops. Wash well if this is the case. Peel the potato and cut into chunks. Melt the butter and the olive oil together in a large pot over low to medium heat. Add the leeks, onion and garlic and sweat (cook gently and slowly, without browning) until they are soft and sweet. This should take about 8 or 9 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas, potato, stock and parmesan rind (if using – it will give a noticeably richer and fuller taste to the soup) and raise the heat to medium. Once simmering, cook for 20 minutes, or until the potato is well and truly tender. Strain the soup and discard the parmesan rind (if using), keeping the liquid to one side. Allow the solids to cool a little. Place the solids into a food processor, add the grated parmesan and a little of the reserved liquid, then blend to a smooth puree. You may need to do this in a few batches.
Place the pureed chickpeas back into the rinsed out pot and add enough of the reserved liquid to thin the soup out to a nice, light consistency – not too watery, and not too stodgy. Bring to the simmer, and add a good amount of sea salt – tasting as you go.
If you are using the fresh chickpeas, bring a small saucepan of salted water to the boil. Add the fresh chickpeas and cook for 2 minutes, no more – they really don't take long at all.
Ladle the soup into 4 big warm and waiting bowls. Drain the fresh chickpeas and scatter evenly over each bowl of soup. Divide the shaved parmesan between each bowl, then drizzle over an Italian's serve of extra virgin olive oil, and grind plenty of black pepper on top. Serve hot with lots of lavishly buttered fresh bread – good bakery sourdough would be perfect.
The most obvious wine partnership here would be one of those over the top, buttery, malolactic-influenced chardonnays that Australia has been churning out over the last decade or so (sorry about that – we seem to be making less of them now). I hate these sort of wines, so a much more elegant, and slightly more adventurous choice would be a rich viognier, or even a honeyed marsanne showing a few years bottle age.
1 Lazarus, whose job it was to shell the chickpeas has pointed out that I have neglected to explain just how long the task takes, and how woeful the yield. Well, he is right, so to avoid this onerous task yourself, I suggest you get your own Lazarus.