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I've stopped in with some chickpeas today, along with a recipe that has me acting like a crazy person.

How so? Well, let's read the ingredients. You will surely recognize the usual suspects, robust olive oil, our old friend garlic, aromatic leeks and of course the chickpeas. Then there's twangy lemon and woodsy rosemary, adding height and depth to the mix. Last, the salt. Can't forget that, the universal leveler, the thing that amplifies individual flavours while miraculously creating overall harmony.

But no pepper.

Who have I become? It's unlike me to bring Salt along without it's bosom buddy Pepper. And often I go one step further, with dried chili flakes, cayenne or Kashmiri chili thrown in for kicks. But in this case, (deep breath) I have decided I don't want pepper anywhere near this meal.

Let me give you some sense of this tumble of stewy leeks and chickpeas; they cook up in a way that is gratifyingly substantial, as is our need in these January days. But they are just cooked, without a trace of sludginess, still firm and springy-centered. Silken leeks curl around their goldeness, the pale jadeite strands are floral and sweet. The rosemary and lemon are noticed to be sure, but their forms are blurred at the edges, melting into and carrying forth the flavours of the others in equal measure.

The full effect is something akin to what it would be like to read the collected poems of e.e. cummings by spoon rather than by eye. While there is a variation in tone from bite to bite, there are no full stops or pesky uppercase letters to interrupt the rhythm we've got going here. Pepper would break up that essential mellowness, its wham! bang! personality, although a virtue elsewhere, would be too much for the delicate structure of this dish to bear.

We can't have that. So, I've banished the pepper. Scandalous behaviour, on my part.

Secondly, I'm mad for this stuff. Straight out of the pan it is terribly good, with some wilted bitter greens or steamed broccoli rabe nearby to swirl into the herby, lemony, garlic-infused olive oil left behind. Or, pour in few glugs of stock (chicken or vegetable, please) and suddenly there's soup. It can be eaten as is, with perhaps some Parmesan, or blitzed into a purée (but take the rosemary sprigs out before bringing out the heavy machinery).

Whatever way, in mine at least, hold the pepper.

CHICKPEAS WITH LEEKS AND LEMON

I was heavy-handed with the olive oil, as I knew I wanted that excess to dress the greens served alongside. For a lighter dish, or if your intended result is soup, reduce the oil to 2 tablespoons. Adding the rosemary back to the pan at the end gives a final hit of herbal steam. The twig, and the clove of garlic, can be removed before serving if desired.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large garlic clove, bruised but whole
  • 1 6-inch branch fresh rosemary, broken in two
  • 4 leeks, cleaned, trimmed and with the white and light green parts sliced in 1/4-inch rounds
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 1/2 lemon

METHOD

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic and rosemary over medium heat. Once the garlic turns fragrant and the rosemary begins to sizzle, remove the rosemary but reserve for later.

 

Add the leeks to the pan, along with a good pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the leeks are soft and sweet but still brightly green, around 5 minutes. Tip in the chickpeas, and continue to cook for a 5 minutes more, at which point the chickpeas should have darkened slightly in colour.

Using a microplane or zester, add a few scrapes of lemon zest to the pan, along with a squeeze of lemon juice. Stir gently to combine. Check for seasoning, adding more juice, zest or salt as needed. Return the reserved rosemary sprigs to the pan, and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4.

It is beautiful out.

No wait, let me say it again for those who feel differently about heat than I do. It is hot. It is humid, with clear sunshine interspersed with rather-impressive thunderstorms and torrential rain.

Now I'll admit, I am a lucky one; I am one of those sorts that lives for heat and revels in temperatures others may consider rather sweltering. Dry heat or sticky with humidity, I will always choose a day that is blistering over a day that is remotely cold.

I even take particular joy the dramatic tendencies of our climate. There is something wholly romantic about a midday thunderstorm. The day suddenly turns to dusk, the air heavy and thick with moisture; and afterwards, who cannot enjoy the green, green, green smell of wet grass and soaking leaves, and the reward of a cool breeze. Even as I write this, rain is pouring through trees alight with sunshine and I can hear not-so-distant peals of thunder.

But, even though I consider the weather to be lovely and sultry, I can see my loved ones virtually wilting as the days go on. And so I feel compelled to aid as only I know how - with food.

While I will admit my days have been busier as of late, what with the arrival of our newborn son and the constant entertainment that is his big brother, I have still managed to get back in the kitchen. Like the lovely familiarity of a tune you've hummed for a lifetime, getting back to cooking and baking has brought me the satisfaction of beloved habits. In this mood I have been looking over my cookbook collection, rediscovering old favourites that somehow seem new again.

With that in mind, I have brought together a few of my best-loved recipes I hope will keep you cool for the summer nights ahead.

I have come to embrace the fact that I'm a creature of habit. As such, I revel in my Pavlovian-impulse to make a beeline for a patio once the warm weather hits. In my mind, there is little better than some nibbles and sips under the sun during those muggy months of summertime. Conversation flows as evenings give way to starry nights that stretch on endlessly.

The only drawback to this tendency is that I only associate the al fresco lifestyle with restaurant dining. Save for a few backyard barbecues and poolside afternoons, I rarely eat outside at home - or at least, until recently.

It was most likely that coffee one morning, enjoyed on the back patio, that made me realize how much a simple change in environment altered the feel of the meal. All of a sudden, my morning cup seemed more of a treat than a ritual. It was as if I was on holiday, as my pace turned leisurely and I began to take notice of the trees above me and the birds all around.

Since then, we've been having our meals outdoors at every chance. Not just those meals prepared outside, but even those made in the kitchen are piled up onto a trays and taken to the patio, the deck or even to the porch step. Somehow, these meals feel an event; inherently festive as we all come together under a canopy of leaves.

Fitting for our verdant surroundings, this salad is full of vibrant colours and tastes. The red onion loses much of its harsh edge in a quick pickle of fragrant puckery vinegar, while jammy sundried tomatoes add another acidic but sweet note. They tumble together with meaty chickpeas and salty feta in a garlic vinaigrette, blanketed by a green shower of herbs. Twangy, sweet, creamy and satisfying, this is the sort of salad that is meant to be put in the middle of the table, allowing everyone to dive in.

Chickpea salad with sundried tomatoes, feta and a fistful of herbs
My own recipe. The fistful of herbs is literal; I head outside to our herb boxes and pick whatever needs pruning or strikes my fancy. Once I have a fistful, I know I have enough. One caveat, I have small hands.

Ingredients
1/4 large red onion, sliced wafer thin
2 tablespoons (30 ml) red wine vinegar
Salt
6 tablespoons (90 ml) olive oil
A good pinch, about 1/8 teaspoon, red chili flakes (optional)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced wafer thin
8 sundried tomatoes, julienned
2 cups (500 ml) chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 teaspoon (15 ml) English mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
Approximately 1/2 cup (125 ml) of mixed herbs; examples include parsely, lemon thyme, coriander/cilantro, basil, oregano and mint
5 ounces (150 g) goats milk feta cheese

In a small bowl, douse the red onion with the vinegar. Sprinkle over a good pinch of salt, then use your fingers to squish the mixture a bit - this will work the salt into the onions and expedite the breaking down of their acrid bite. Set aside.

In medium saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil, garlic and red chili flakes. If there is any sizzle at all, turn the heat to low. Once the oil is fragrant and the garlic turns translucent, turn off the heat. Add the sundried tomatoes and chickpeas at this point, allowing them to steep as the oil comes to room temperature. This step of bathing the chickpeas in the warm oil is wholly optional, but I feel it imparts more flavour into the beans.

Once the oil has cooled, remove the tomatoes and chickpeas from the saucepan and put them into a large bowl (keep the oil, set it aside). Do the same with the onions, adding them to the salad but reserving the vinegar.

In that vinegar bowl, whisk in the mustard, salt and pepper. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the steeped olive oil. Once the vinaigrette is emulsified and thick, coarsely chop the herbs and add to the bowl. Pour this dressing over the chickpeas and tomatoes. Toss to combine.

Crumble over the feta, then fold gently to distribute. Check for seasoning. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours for the flavours to combine. Can be served cold or at room temperature.

Serves 4-6.

Notes:

• Canned chickpeas are a convenient pantry staple, but dried beans (soaked, then cooked) will result in a better texture and are my preference.
• To make this a heartier meal, add chunks of grilled steak or chicken when combining the chickpeas and onions.
• Toss through some handfuls of arugula or other greens, then pile the salad onto slices of grilled bread for an appetizer.
• I have been toying with the idea of buzzing this salad in the food processor (with additional olive oil or maybe yogurt as needed) to make a spread. I'll report back on that - but if anyone tries it first, let me know.