When I turned 21, I started cooking with a zeal and self-importance that almost made up for how unnatural the whole enterprise was for me.
I’d meticulously, maniacally dice onions into microscopic congruent cubes, a process I made far more meditative than it’s meant to be. One night, a friend I had invited over for a “dinner party” noted that I was so engrossed in my onions that I hadn’t said a word to her in almost 20 minutes. I then dropped those onions into not nearly enough olive oil over extremely high heat and looked down at the pan, shocked that my careful handiwork had burned to a crisp.
I read extensively about salt and the wonders it can do for flavor and then added it by the shovelful to stews and tomato sauces and pots of mashed potatoes, which I then tried to remedy by stirring in just as much sugar.
After many trials, including one by actual fire, I became something of a cook. I even managed, after a not-so-relaxed audition, to get hired last summer to work in the kitchen of a bespoke catering company, where I mastered bechamel sauce and simmered locally foraged mushrooms into a jammy filling that I piped into pierogi dough.
At home I developed what my friends — some admiringly and others reproachfully — refer to as my signature culinary style: lots of herbs (cilantro, usually); a spice level not fit for the feeble; a little more salt than most people would probably want (still learning!); capers where they’re not called for but where they nonetheless want to be; lemon juice (acid, unlike sugar, actually does counteract my oversalting problem).
Dinner is usually served 30 minutes later than I promised it would be, with double the amount of onion a recipe requires and with the humble, hearty, reliable chickpea as a star ingredient.
The way I see it, the chickpea has been waiting in the wings its whole life. It wants to be a star, it can be a star, it has all the makings of a star — but it’s usually placed on the bottom shelf at the grocery store. It’s never going to be Madonna. But it has a certain folk charm to it. The chickpea is the Joni Mitchell of legumes.
This recipe, based on one written by Alison Roman but doctored into oblivion by me, finally gives the chickpea its due. It’s a warm salad or just a good, nourishing thing to eat for lunch or dinner.
Cooking these chickpeas is a rags-to-riches story. Think of the chickpea as Little Orphan Annie and yourself as Daddy Warbucks. You’re taking an ordinary ingredient and treating it lavishly — bathing it in the best-quality olive oil you can find, tossing it with patiently sautéed onions, blanketing it under bright cilantro, and garnishing it with tangy feta and fancy, flaky sea salt.
You can make this and talk to dinner guests at the same time. Two years into my cooking endeavors, I’ve gotten over all that painstaking dicing; now I’m running my knife through that onion five times max. The thick slices are plopped in the skillet over low heat, where time and olive oil will turn them impossibly delicious. The cilantro stems could go in whole, but if you’re cooking in polite society, go ahead and chop them. As for the feta, buy a hunk and use your hands to just barely crumble it over the top.
This is a versatile dish, and I’ve made it a dozen different ways, depending on what I have in the kitchen: with dill instead of cilantro, shallots instead of onions, goat cheese instead of feta. I’ve used all kinds of spices: cumin, paprika, cayenne, sumac. Each time, it’s been delicious.
This variation is the one I made at my friend Auden’s house. Auden, unlike me, is the kind of person who keeps fennel bulbs lying around — he’s a chef and cooks with preternatural ease. So, of course, I added fennel to the onions.
Auden strikes me as someone who would not only survive on a desert island but would also come to enjoy it. He was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, and like a lot of guys who belong to the more hippie side of that land, he has a full beard and thick brown hair down to his back; in the summertime, I’ve never seen him in shoes. He drives a 1987 Honda Civic Wagovan. He builds impromptu bonfires and then plays guitar around them. A fashion designer named a linen cabana shirt after him. He is the one person I know who could just as accurately be described as “salt of the earth” as “glamorous.”
Those are also two good descriptors for this dish. I knew I had done something right when, a few days after I made it for him, Auden texted me asking for the recipe.
WARM CHICKPEA SALAD
Makes 4 servings
½ cup good-quality olive oil (plus more for serving)
2 large red or yellow onions (or one of each), thickly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thickly sliced (save fronds for the garnish)
Freshly ground black pepper
5 sprigs fresh oregano, thyme, rosemary, or a combination
A big pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tsp. turmeric
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 oz. feta cheese
1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
The juice of ½ lemon
Sour cream or full-fat yogurt (optional)
- Heat half the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large skillet. Add onion and fennel in rounds to avoid crowding and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until almost caramelized and very jammy, about 25 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove onions and fennel from oil and place in serving bowl.
- Add another quarter cup olive oil to the skillet and, once it’s hot, the sprigs of herbs, red pepper flakes, and turmeric and stir vigorously for about 30 seconds so that the flavors infuse the oil. Add chickpeas. Toss to coat in the oil and season with more salt.
- Allow chickpeas to cook, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, for about 15 minutes. The chickpeas should be a deep golden brown and have a nice char in a few spots. Taste a chickpea or two, adjust seasoning as desired.
- Add browned chickpeas to the serving bowl over the onion and fennel. Top with feta cheese, cilantro, a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and flaky salt; stir to combine. Serve with a dollop of yogurt over a bed of couscous, lacinato kale, or toasted sourdough.