Chickpeas are so cheap to buy that it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to grow them before I tasted fresh green chickpeas at a market in Maharastra in India. They seem to be in season there in early spring and are sold in bunches, still in their pods, fresh, green and delicious and packed with nutrients.
Chickpeas are surprisingly easy to grow and very attractive with ferny silver leaves, growing to about 75cm tall. They are best grown as a summer crop, as they like full sun. The plant produces pods in abundance; the young chickpeas may be eaten like small French beans or petits pois, and others left to mature in the sun into chickpeas for drying.
Chickpeas, known as gram in India, are one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops. They are also called garbanzo beans in the US and Canada, or ceci beans, and are native to South Eastern Turkey, North Africa and India. An uncommon black chickpea is grown in South-eastern Italy – ceci neri. On a recent trip to Burma I found fresh chickpea leaves for sale at the market, apparently used for salad, and as a cooked vegetable and often mixed with potato.
At Ballymaloe, we grow Principe – a white-skinned variety. The seed comes from Italy; the varieties grown around the Mediterranean have a smooth skin, while the Indian cultivars have a wrinkled skin.
Grow your own
As ever, provenance of the seed is important, otherwise there will be poor germination. Chickpeas have a long growing season; they take about 100 days from seed to harvest in full sun. The chickpea is a bushy plant with feathery green leaves and white flowers, some have a bluish/purple tinge, and seedpods containing one or occasionally two chickpeas. They grow between 20 and75 cm tall and, like other legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil. In spring, we sow the seed in 9cm pots in potting compost in our growing room. They take about two weeks to germinate. Transfer to the greenhouse or tunnel when they are 5–7.5cm tall. After another 2–2½ weeks, transfer into larger pots (25–30cm), or transplant into the ground 60cm apart in all directions. They are fairly tolerant of drought but at the flowering stage and when the peas are forming, watering can help swell the pods.
Container growing is also possible. We grow chickpeas in large recycled tomato tins on the wide windows in the cookery school, and both the students and visitors are fascinated to see a chickpea plant. They look cool in tin cans, but a 15-litre pot, or a galvanised bucket with drainage holes is better. They need the space. You can feed them with a little comfrey tea or tomato feed, once they begin to produce pods, but our fresh chickpeas get eaten so fast they scarcely get time to mature.
The fresh chickpeas are ready to harvest in mid-to-late summer or early autumn. Cut the branches and enjoy the fresh green chickpeas; they are sweet and crunchy and packed with goodness. They need to be used as quickly as possible after cutting, as they deteriorate quite quickly. To dry the peas for storage, leave them until the leaves and pods begin to turn brown, but before the pods split, otherwise you will lose some of your precious crop. Tie the branches in bundles and hang them upside down in a warm dry place. As soon as they are dry the chickpeas can be collected and stored.
Packed with protein
Chickpeas are a brilliant low GI food with a high fibre content. They help to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and reduce heart disease. They are an excellent and inexpensive source of protein – 20 per cent protein, 5 per cent fat, 55 per cent carbohydrate. They are actually a complete protein: a serving of chickpeas provides all the amino acids the body requires every day. They are also a good source of vitamins, particularly B vitamins and minerals like potassium and phosphorus.
Used dried or canned chickpeas in Darina's recipe for Aracena chicken with chickpeas
In the kitchen
Chickpeas are immensely versatile, they can be eaten when they are fresh or dried and cooked, then used in a wide variety of soups, stews, salads and, of course, puréed and mixed with tahini for hummus bi tahina. ram flour made from chickpeas is used for batters and fritters.
They are also irresistible when roasted as a snack. For spiced chickpeas for 6–8 people to nibble, soak 120g dried chickpeas overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain, cover with fresh water and cook for 20 minutes, drain well. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Mix 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with 2 plump crushed garlic cloves, add the chickpeas, toss to coat. Spread on a baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes. Shake the sheet occasionally so they cook evenly. Pour onto kitchen paper, then toss while still warm with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of paprika, 1 teaspoon of ground cumin, ½ teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Season to taste. We enjoy them most while still hot but they can be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for a few days.
The fresh young leaves can be eaten in salads or you can pick off the chickpea tips to help thicken up the plants and cook them in boiling salted water for 5–6 minutes until tender. Drain well. Toss in melted butter or extra virgin olive oil.
A tip: when you cook chickpeas, cook twice the quantity you need, cover generously with fresh water and cook for 40-50 minutes or until soft and tender. Remove from the heat and, if time allows, leave in the water to cool and they will swell even further. Drain and freeze what you don’t need so they are ready to use for another recipe. Save the cooking water as a vegetarian stock for soups and stews.
Edited extract from Grow Cook Nourish: A Kitchen Garden Companion in 500 Recipes by Darina Allen (Kylie Books, hb, $59.99). Recipe photography by Clare Winfield.
Simple dumplings cooked in a tasty yoghurt and tomato sauce - count us in! These quick, wheat-free pancakes are perfect for any time of the day and can be enjoyed hot or cold. Many of my Asian patients with blood sugar problems tell me that they struggle to replace flatbreads or chapattis in their diet. Unfortunately, most shop-bought flatbreads these days are made of highly refined wheat flour, whereas in India they are traditionally made with wholemeal chickpea flour, which is relatively lower in carbohydrate and high in protein and fibre. It is also gluten-free.
Simple dumplings cooked in a tasty yoghurt and tomato sauce - count us in!
These quick, wheat-free pancakes are perfect for any time of the day and can be enjoyed hot or cold.
Many of my Asian patients with blood sugar problems tell me that they struggle to replace flatbreads or chapattis in their diet. Unfortunately, most shop-bought flatbreads these days are made of highly refined wheat flour, whereas in India they are traditionally made with wholemeal chickpea flour, which is relatively lower in carbohydrate and high in protein and fibre. It is also gluten-free.