Cooking: Chez Panisse–But What's a Panisse?

You've all heard of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' breakout restaurant in Berkeley. You can't have avoided mention of it–and it is, to be fair, an outstanding restaurant. But if you aren't French, specifically Provençal, you probably have no idea what the hell panisse means. I speak French fluently–albeit with un p'tit accent savoyard–and I didn't know until I had one the first time.

Panisses (“pah-NEESS” in both the singular and plural) are chickpea
fritters. They're basically polenta, but made from garbanzo flour;
like polenta, chickpea mush sets up hard when allowed to cool, at which
point the concoction is sliced and fried.

It's easy to do. The hardest part is finding the chickpea flour. Don't buy the ridiculously expensive nonsense in the fancy kitchen stores. Go to your local Indian market–there are Indian markets in many places, from Buena Park to Lake Forest–where you'll be spoiled for choice. Indians eat a great deal of chickpeas, and the flour you're looking for will be called chana besan and cost well less than a dollar per pound.

300 grams chickpea flour (10.5 ounces, or about 2.5 cups)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 liter water (4.25 cups)
Olive oil (not extra virgin) for frying
Coarse salt

1. Oil a 9-inch-by-9-inch or similar pan.
2. Bring the water, salt and oil to a simmer, then whisk in the flour.
3. Cook over medium heat, whisking, for three minutes.
4. Change to a wooden spoon and beat the mixture constantly until it pulls away from the sides, about another 6 to 8 minutes.
5. Spread the mixture into the oiled pan and chill until set.
6. Set a cutting board over the top, flip the assembly, and bang it onto a counter to release the dough.
7. Cut once across the middle, then cut the other way into 8 strips, for a total of 16 pieces.
8. Fry on both sides in olive oil until bubbly and brown, then drain and salt while still hot.

What do you do with them? Serve them still warm from the fryer with a dipping sauce–anything tomatoey or vegetable-based, ratatouille, even caponata from the Italian market. In the South of France, they're often served with salt and pepper and a glass of rosé wine–go right ahead.

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