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I came across this very simple recipe recently while researching the idea of making my own paneer, the Indian cheese. It’s amazing where a little internet mis-spelling can take you. Next thing you know I’ve left India and am intrigued by the peculiar charm of this simple Sicilian street food snack. Apparently it’s a much loved and ferociously more-ish snack, especially when taking an early evening promenade through the ancient streets of a Sicilian village in good company. What wouldn’t be, you might ask. I did. The ingredients are surely too simple for the dish to amount to so much.
That’s my way of thinking usually – too simple, add more flavours! – but it can help me to sometimes see in a basic recipe the beginnings of an interestingly complex dish. There’s a rule about messing with old classic recipes, however, and it is this – make it the proper way first, then think about how to work with it. So I knocked up a batch, and let me tell you it’s tough work towards the end, when the porridge is really thick but still not quite there, and then it all gets a bit frantic as you try to press the quick-setting but boiling hot goo into the tin. If you enjoy that kind of fun, it will bring a little flush to your cheeks.
After I’d fried some off, I tasted it unadorned and thought..ho-hum. Then I sprinkled on the dressings of cheese, parsley and lime and had another piece…followed by a dozen more. No joking, I ate the portions I intended to save so I could see if it reheated well.
That’s a long way of telling you that the classic version of this recipe is so good you don’t need to get creative with it (though I confess to adding the lime). It’s just great great snack food with drinks. If you want to mess around with it, I’d suggest playing with the accompaniments – try serving it with a light spicy salsa to dip into or adding some spice mix to the dressing you scatter on top.
That said, of course in Paradiso we couldn’t resist bringing it indoors and dressing it up for dinner. We first used it as a canape – how far from street food is the very word ‘canape’? – cut into squares and topped with a little spicy aubergine relish. The queen demanded second helpings when she dropped in for a snack after her visit to the Tyndall Institute round the corner. Then we put it on the menu, served with an harissa-spiced peperonata, a salty feta cream and a sprinkling of lime. As that little beauty took shape in my mind, I envisaged dragging a Sicilian classic all around the Med, what you might call doing a Christopher Walken. So, okay, do mess with it all you like…but only after you’ve obeyed the golden rule – try it straight up first.
**DISCLAIMER – One of the above sentences is untrue.
250g gram (chickpea) flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for frying
small bunch of flatleaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons finely grated hard cheese
Put the water in a pot and whisk in the gram flour, salt and the tablespoon of olive oil.
Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula, until you get a very thick porridge-like consistency.
Transfer the mix to a 2lb loaf tin or similar and press down to get a smooth finish. Chill for at least two hours, or up to a day.
Cut the panelle into two-bite slices about 1cm thick. Heat some olive oil in a pan to about 0.5cm deep. Fry the panelle slices for 5-7 minutes, turning once, until golden and crisp on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper. Keep batches warm in a moderate oven if necessary.
Place the fried panelle on a serving platter and sprinkle over a generous covering of the parsley and cheese, then squeeze some lime juice on top. Serve warm with wine, beer or summer cocktails.