Cold winter days call out for comfort food–and what could be better than this soupy, homely, immensely satisfying southern Italian dish, pasta e ceci? (A little Italian lesson here: "ce" is pronounced as in the first three letters of "checkers" and "ci" as in "ciao.")
It is a strikingly simple recipe, a cousin of pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans) and a staple of households in the center of the Italian peninsula and below. Head to Rome or Naples, and this would be a fixture on many a menu and kitchen table.
As with many of the best, home cooked favourites, there are many different ways to prepare pasta e ceci, tweaked to perfection over generations according to regional or family preferences. There are those who like it without (or with very little) tomato, and those who like it stained vermillion (and then there’s the question of whether you use fresh, concentrated, canned whole, or puréed tomatoes). There are those that purée a portion of the chickpeas (a third, half, or three quarters) and those that leave this dish at its most elemental with whole chickpeas–alla romana, for example.
Then there’s the argument over whether to cook the pasta with the chickpeas or separately–and then, finally, whether to use short or long pasta. Ditalini (short, round tubes of pasta) are the classic short pasta for this dish, but you could also use pasta mista–broken up pieces of pasta in a mix of shapes–or rombi, a frilly ribbon pasta cut short into diamond-shapes, which is what I’ve used in the photos (those who prefer long, wide noodles to tubes or other short pasta will like these).
So rather than a strict recipe, let’s say this is just one way you could prepare this wonderful dish. All the variations have their merits!
This version does not involve a soffritto (chopped carrot, celery and onion) at the start; it just uses garlic, rosemary, and a touch of chili. A heavy-handed dose of tomato–probably a bit more than “normal”–in the form of chopped canned tomatoes adds color, and about a third of the chickpeas were puréed (but I could easily sway to using half). For me, when you have this soupy sauce that wants to be eaten with a spoon, short pasta is the way to go with pasta e ceci. If you’re not intending on keeping this a vegan or vegetarian dish, you could also add some chopped pancetta (fried crisp separately, then scattered on top) or melt some anchovies together with the garlic.
My husband cannot resist putting vongole, clams, with chickpeas. Somehow the earthy, silkiness of chickpeas with briny, sea-salty, chewy clams are a match made in heaven. Try it.
It goes without saying that with any dish as simple as this one, the quality of your ingredients goes a long way–I cannot stress how important this is for the chickpeas and olive oil in this dish, especially. —Emiko
- Prep time 12 hours
- Cook time 20 minutes
- Serves 4
(200 grams) dried chickpeas (or a 14 ounce/400 gr can of cooked chickpeas), plus liquid from cooking
fresh bay leaf
whole garlic clove
sprig fresh rosemary
fresh or dried chili, chopped (optional)
about half a 14 ounce can of peeled, chopped tomatoes
(200 grams) of short pasta such as ditalini, pasta mista or rombi (see notes)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- If you’re using dried chickpeas, put them in a bowl covered with plenty of fresh cold water the night before and leave them to soak in the fridge. The next day, drain the soaked chickpeas and place them in a saucepan, cover with fresh water, add a bay leaf and simmer for a couple of hours or until the chickpeas are soft. Add salt to taste at the end. Don’t throw away the cooking liquid – this is gold and you’ll need it for the sauce. If using canned chickpeas, skip to next step.
- In another saucepan, gently heat a smashed garlic clove, a sprig of rosemary (minus the twigs, or remove them before adding the chickpeas) and the chilli in a few tablespoons of olive oil. When the garlic begins to get fragrant and soften, perhaps even slightly colour, add the tomato and let sizzle for a few minutes.
- Add a ladle-full of the chickpea liquid (if you’ve used canned, use the liquid in the can) and about two-thirds of the chickpeas. Puree the remaining chickpeas before adding to the saucepan to create a creamy, thick sauce. There are some who remove the lump of smashed garlic before adding the chickpea puree – but I leave it in.
- Add more of the chickpea liquid (or water or stock) to the sauce until it is quite watery, then add the pasta and cook until the al dente and the sauce has reduced. If you choose to use a long pasta, you may want to cook it separately in a pot of water then simply add it to the ready sauce.
- By the time the pasta has cooked, the sauce should be creamy, not watery, but not too thick either. Like a creamy soup. Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Ladle into shallow bowls, pour over your very best extra virgin olive oil, more freshly ground pepper and then let it sit for a moment or two before serving as it will be piping hot and it needs to cool a little to be best enjoyed. Grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese is entirely optional. Serve this pasta dish with a spoon.