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Are Chickpeas Your New Favorite Taco Filling?

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In the February 2017 issue of Food and Wine, a bowl of saucy chickpeas with kale and Parmesan caught my eye. Alongside the photo, a caption from chef Missy Robbins, a self-proclaimed carboholic, read: “Chickpeas absorb sauce like pasta does, so I now use them instead.”

This note made me want to revisit all of my favorite pasta recipes. It also made me consider a different, but healthful-minded swap: chickpeas for ground meat. Ground meat, like pasta, can be a vehicle for sauce, assuming the flavors of whatever surrounds it. For instance, no matter what type of ground meat—beef, chicken, turkey—I use in my favorite taco recipe, the resulting mix tastes about the same, the meat out-flavored by the bold seasonings. Could chickpeas, I wondered, be the new protein of choice for my Taco Tuesdays?

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Chickpea Taco Bowls
Chickpea Taco Bowls

It worked beautifully, the chickpeas swelling with the smoky, spicy, earthy flavors of the chili powder, cumin, crushed tomatoes, and garlic. Because chickpeas act like sponges, I needed to add more liquid, but otherwise the process was the same: Sweat the onions, add the seasonings, liquid, and protein, and simmer till flavorful.

This swap, I should note, is not intended to fool anyone. The resulting stew-y, hearty filling looks and tastes like chickpeas. But it’s no less satisfying. I find this version, in fact, to be tastier and more filling than its meat precursor, so much so that I—another self-proclaimed carboholic—find tortillas unnecessary. All I want here are the fresh fixin’s: finely shredded lettuce, lime wedges, and quick-pickled onions. (A handful of grated cheese and a dollop of sour cream doesn’t hurt either.)

Definitely not meat (and we're so happy about it).
Definitely not meat (and we're so happy about it). Photo by Alexandra Stafford

A few notes:

  • These chickpeas get better the next day, so don’t be afraid to make them ahead of time. When you reheat, you likely will need to add more water, since the chickpeas will soak up the liquid as they sit. I haven’t tried using other legumes or grains in place of the chickpeas, but I imagine white beans, bulgur, and quinoa—all of which I’m eager to try—would work well, too.

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  • As noted above, I find the chickpeas to be more filling than ground meat. With all of the toppings, this chickpea mix becomes a meal. That said, I could easily imagine serving this over rice or tucking it into a large tortilla and wrapping it into a burrito. Fresh avocado and cilantro would be nice here, too.

  • Some sort of fresh pickle or salsa is essential. It can be as simple as finely dicing a red onion or a few radishes, seasoning with salt, and tossing it all with vinegar or lime juice. This sort of quick pickle takes no time to throw together, but offers a welcome, sharp counterpoint to the rich, wintry flavors.    

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Chickpea Taco Bowls

80c8d252 05ad 4f0a 8d87 5bbdefe65aa4  astafford Alexandra Stafford
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Serves 4

For cooking the chickpeas

  • 1 pound dried chickpeas, see notes above
  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the chickpea taco bowls

  • 2 tablespoons oil, grapeseed or olive
  • 2 cups diced onions
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons chili powder, see notes above
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes, see notes above
  • 1 tablespoon cider (or other) vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • juice of half a lime, plus more for serving
  • For serving: grated cheese, sour cream, finely shredded romaine lettuce, quick-pickled onions (see notes above)
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Tell us: How would you top these chickpea bowls (or would you rather have them in a tortilla)?

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Tags: tacos, chickpeas