COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

CHICKPEA SOUP RETAINS ITS
PRIMACY IN ROME

In Rome, the remnants and artifacts of the ancient civilization are never more than a few steps away. So we live with the past. And like the stones and monuments, which today are the foundation of a modern city, the cooking of ancient Rome is at the core of contemporary cuisine. Many dishes we find on menus here can be traced back more than 2,000 years.

One of Rome's most enduring primi piatti (first courses including pastas, grains, and soups) is pasta e ceci, a thick soup with origins in antiquity. Romans pronounce the dish as one word: pasta-cheh-chee. In early Roman cuisine, beans and legumes of all kinds, and chickpeas in particular, were essential. (The family name of Cicero, one of the most revered writer-philosophers of the day, was derived from the word for chickpea.) In the Roman text "On Cookery " by Apicius, there are several chickpea preparations, including a stew, described in great detail.

Exactly when that chickpea stew became pasta e ceci is unknown. Pasta was introduced to the Italian peninsula after the 8th century. We can assume that it wasn't long after that cooks discovered the combination of beans and grains -- in this case, pasta -- created a nourishing and sustaining meal.

This isn't just a Roman dish, however; you'll find it in other parts of Italy as well. The regional distinctions are in the consistency and the type of pasta. In the south pasta e ceci is prepared with long strands, like tagliatelli and spaghetti, and is served with a thick sauce of chickpeas. Northern cooks simmer the soup with short pasta. Here in Rome, approximately mid-peninsula, it's somewhere between the two: a very thick soup of chickpeas and pasta, either long strands that have been broken into thirds, or short shapes, flavored with garlic, fresh rosemary, and tomatoes (these were added after the discovery of the New World).

Taste a spoonful, and you can appreciate the culinary layers: first the meltingly tender chickpeas, then the pasta, which still has some bite, finally the sweet tomatoes. Something like turning a corner in Rome and discovering a new building near the ruins.


Pasta e ceci
(Pasta and chickpea soup)

Serves 4

To enjoy this soup as we do in Rome, begin with dried chickpeas and soak them before cooking. You can cook the chickpeas hours, or even a day, in advance. Cook the pasta and add it to the soup just before serving.

1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked for at least 8 hours and drained

8 cups cold water

1/2 cup canned tomato puree (or canned, chopped tomatoes)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt, to taste

4 ounces pasta, short shapes such as ditallini, or long strands broken into thirds

1. In a heavy 4-quart pot, combine the chickpeas, water, tomato puree or tomatoes, rosemary, and olive oil. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat and partially cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 1/2 hours, or until the chickpeas are completely tender when tasted. Add salt to taste.

2. Remove about 1 cup of the mixture and some liquid and transfer to a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth. Return the pureed mixture to the pot.

3. Set the soup over medium-high heat and return to a boil.

4. Add the pasta and cook, stirring often so the pasta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot, for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the pasta is tender, but still firm to the bite.