It occurs to me that I’ve talked a lot about the flavors of Genova and Liguria, but I haven’t really given you a taste. So before we leave this beautiful region of cliffs and cool breezes, of ports and seaside villages, I’d like to share this recipe for farinata, a classic Ligurian street food.
Farinata is a flatbread of sorts, composed of chick pea flour and water, olive oil and salt (and a few optional embellishments). It’s traditionally baked in a wide, shallow, well-seasoned copper pan and enjoyed hot out of the oven, sliced into squares or wedges. The result is a bit like a savory pancake, soft in the middle but with a delicate lace-like crust. Chickpea flour gives it a golden color and an appealing vegetal flavor. It is sold hot out of the oven in focaccerie and other shops.
The recipe may date back to medieval times, and possibly to Roman times, depending on which of two legends you believe. One claims that Roman troops occupying Genova, in need of quick and cheap nourishment, “baked” the pancakes in the sun right on their shields. The other holds that the Genovese fleet, returning from battle against Pisa in 1284, encountered stormy seas. Bags of chickpea flour and barrels of oil tipped over and mixed with the salty water of the sea, resulting in a slurry, which the hungry soldiers dried and “baked” on deck. (I’m not sure I believe either.)
In his book Recipes From Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera, Fred Plotkin notes that the basic recipe varies depending on where you are in Liguria. Some versions call for fresh rosemary and others for stirring in sliced onion right before baking. Some are generously seasoned with black pepper. Beyond Liguria, you will also find variations in Piedmont, Sardegna, Tuscany, and across the French border in Nice.
Plotkin cautions against adding too many ingredients, which could overwhelm the delicate flavor of the tart, and I agree. He also warns that farinata “is delicious when piping hot. When cool or cold it is very unappetizing.” On this point we part ways. It’s true that the texture is not as fine once it has cooled ~ it loses that light crispiness and turns kind of floppy. But I love it at room temperature, especially the rosemary version. You really taste the chickpeas. (I had some for breakfast this morning.)
Since I don’t have one of those traditional copper pans, I used a battered 14-inch pizza pan that I got years ago at a mercato. To maximize the heat potential of my oven, I cranked it up to 500 degrees F and preheated my baking steel, then set the pan on top of that. A pizza stone would also work. Otherwise, just preheat your oven to as high as it goes. You can always run the farinata under the broiler at the end to brown it a bit. Take care not to overfill the pan; the pancake should not be more than 1/3-inch thick. (I had leftover batter, so I saved it and baked a smaller farinata the next day.) Also, be careful as you are transferring the pan to the oven, as the batter is thin and sloshes around.
Farinata may be classified as street food, but it makes a great side dish. I served it the other night with grilled sausages and fried peppers and onions. Other pairing ideas: roast chicken, a bowl of hearty minestrone, or mussel stew.
This typical Ligurian street food is sold by the slice fresh out of the oven. It requires only a few basic ingredients--chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, and rosemary--and can be enjoyed piping hot or at room temperature. Serve it with roast chicken, grilled sausages or chops, or mussel stew. Adapted from several sources, including "L'Antica Cuciniera Genovese," and "Recipes from Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera," by Fred Plotkin.
- 3 cups chickpea flour (available at most supermarkets and Italian grocery stores)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating a baking pan
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Combine the chickpea flour and salt in a mixing bowl with a spout. Gradually whisk in the water. You will end up with a thin crepe-like batter. Keep whisking to dissolve any little lumps of flour. Cover the bowl and let the batter rest for at least 1 hour. I mixed mine in the morning and let it sit on the countertop all day. This step is important because it allows the flour to absorb the liquid. (If you like, mix the batter and refrigerate it. Bring it to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.)
Place a rack in the upper third of the oven. If using a baking stone or a baking steel, place it on the rack. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Coat a large shallow pan, such as a pizza pan or large rimmed baking sheet, with a generous amount of olive oil. (I used a 14-inch round pizza pan.)
With a spoon or skimmer, skim off any foam that might have formed on the surface of the batter. Whisk the batter thoroughly to mix in any sediment at the bottom of the bowl. Whisk in the rosemary and 1/4 cup olive oil. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Do not overfill the pan. If you have leftover batter, use it to bake a second farinata (the batter can be stored overnight in the refrigerator).
Carefully transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on how hot your oven is. Start checking after 10 minutes. When finished, the farinata will be set, with a lovely golden top and crispy browned edges. If it needs a little more browning, turn on the broiler and broil for a minute or two, just until a few browned spots appear on top. Remove from the oven and let cool briefly. Grind a little black pepper over the top, if you like. Slice the farinata into wedges and serve.