Panelle alla ceci – chickpea fritters – are a popular street food in Sicily. I haven’t been to Sicily for many years but have eaten panelle in London, most memorably from a Sicilian street-food stall at Mercato Metropolitano in London. Here – as you can see below – they were fried to order and placed in a paper cone to eat straight away.
These aren’t treats to make in advance; even the dough needs to be made fairly last minute (keep no more than a few hours) as I discovered (and then read) when I tried to use my dough a second day and it started falling apart. These are to cook and serve immediately, with some sea salt sprinkled over the top and maybe a squeeze of lemon.
Thought to be of Arabic origin, when the Arabs ruled Sicily between 9th and 11th centuries, they are often served in a soft roll. The Sicilians seem fond of putting things in ‘rolls’ for they famously like to serve gelato in brioche (photo below of eating this in Vienna in a Sicilian gelateria).
The panelle are easily made from just chickpea flour, water and seasoning. Chickpeas (ceci) are popular in Arabic cooking, think hummus etc., and are very nutritious. The benefits of cooking with chickpea flour (farina di ceci – see photo below) is that it’s naturally gluten-free, high in protein, iron and fibre and contains many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Isn’t it nice when something delicious is also good for you!
I spent some time looking for a good recipe and in the end went with Rick Stein’s from his Long Weekends book. His recipes are usually reasonably authentic and reliable. I also liked his addition of fennel seeds (quite a popular touch, I discovered) and that he shallow-fried the panelle – not totally authentic perhaps, but I’m not a deep-fat-frying person!
Rick differed from most people by putting his dough mix in a small loaf tin to cool and then cutting it into thin slices. Most recipes spread the mixture out on oiled paper or a marble top to cool, then cut the shapes. Then there was the question of how thick the panelle should be. Most – like those at Mercato Metropolitano – are fairly thin but from the experience of just one attempt, I can tell you that’s quite challenging. I obviously need practice! Rick offers a nice vague ‘quite thinly’ while Antonio Carluccio offers a slightly surprisingly thick 1cm; Gino D’Acampo says no thicker than 5mm; Giorgio Locatelli states 3mm. Well, I can tell you that it’s going to take a lot of practice to please Giorgio. I tried some very thin ones at first but they broke up easily, so in the end my panelle might not be thin enough to impress a Sicilian but the important thing was they were really delicious – gorgeously crispy on the outside; soft and creamy inside.
Panelle alla Ceci
- 750ml cold water
- 250g chickpea flour
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
- 1 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- olive oil for frying
Put the cold water in a large saucepan and then slowly pour in the chickpea flour, whisking all the time with a balloon whisk, to try to avoid lumps. Add the ground fennel seeds. Heat over a moderate heat, stirring constantly, until thick. (It’s a little like making custard or béchamel sauce.) If it’s lumpy, take from the heat and beat vigorously until smooth, then return to the heat. Once thickened, continue to cook gently, stirring all the time, for about another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the salt, pepper and parsley. Mix well.
Have a small loaf tin oiled and lined across the long sides ready. Put the panelle mixture into it and smooth off the top. Allow to cool completely.
Turn out. Slice it fairly thinly (see above!). They were quite long slices so I halved again.
Heat some olive oil in a small frying pan. Cover the bottom so there’s a shallow layer of oil. When it’s hot and starting to sizzle, put in the pieces of panelle – not too many at a time – and fry until golden brown on each side; turning carefully when the first side is brown.
Lift from the pan with a slotted spoon onto a plate. Sprinkle over some sea salt. Serve immediately with wedges of lemon.
Pour yourself a glass of prosecco, find a sunny spot in the evening sun, and sit and relax while you enjoy a bit of homemade Sicilian street food in your garden.
They were really delicious. Depending on how thick you make then you’ll need maybe only two or three as an appetiser but more of thin ones.
The making of them did remind me of making polenta and Antonio Carluccio suggests serving them like polenta with a sauce (like this recipe of mine – click here). If you manage to make them very thin, they make a great and rather special snack for aperitivo with prosecco or an Aperol spritz. A fancy Italian alternative to crisps!