One of the things I love most about creative pursuits is how a kernel of an idea, picked up from elsewhere, can take root in my body and morph, almost of its own volition, into something new. It happens to me in my writing, and even more so in my cooking. Sometimes the idea twists and warps in the process, emerging partly-formed and disappointing; but other times it’s charmed right from the get-go, and that’s what really keeps me going.
This was one of the charmed ones. It began as I was casting about for a Spanish-inflected vegetarian main course to serve for my mother’s birthday, a headliner for the opening act of those glorious clams and artichokes. From somewhere in the dusty crannies of my brain came a vague memory of a Minimalist recipe for chickpeas with spinach and sherry. I went looking for it, and in the process found another Minimalist recipe for rack of lamb with pimenton-flavored rye breadcrumbs. I seized on a sentence in the accompanying write-up: “[these breadcrumbs] could turn the simplest vegetable gratin into something truly special.” And suddenly the two recipes began to meld and harmonize into one: a chickpea and spinach gratin, flavored with sherry and topped with those incredible breadcrumbs. From there it was just a matter of finding a good chickpea gratin recipe to riff on, and then putting everything together as best I knew how.
From the minute I sent the gratin into the oven, I knew I had a winner. Just the carnival-clutter appearance of it made me smile, with purple-red onions and sandy-colored chickpeas and grassy spinach and that gorgeous brick-red breadcrumb blanket. From the oven I could smell smokiness and garlic and the sweet mustiness of Amontillado sherry. It came out bubbling, deep crackling brown on top, and almost luscious underneath. The onions–a whole mountain of them–melted into filmy ribbons in the oven, and the spinach turned dark and silky. The breadcrumbs themselves were richly smoky, crisp, almost meaty, like a strange vegan hybrid of bacon bits and chorizo. We devoured our portions and swabbed our plates with bread to mop up every last bit of the sherry-infused gravy.
My one possibly-unnecessary step was to mash half the chickpeas before adding them to the gratin, hoping that the mix of pureed, chunky, and whole chickpeas would lend contrast and interest to the gratin. But the mashed chickpeas just dissolved into the sauce, while the whole ones stayed whole, becoming lush and soft in the oven. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably keep all the chickpeas whole, for more creamy texture interruptions throughout the gratin. Call the mash an optional step. Do it if you want a slightly thicker filling, or don’t if you want a greater texture contrast.
This could serve nicely as a vegetarian or vegan entree, or as a side dish for chicken or light-fleshed fish. And the leftovers are just made to be reheated for breakfast with a fried egg on top. It’s a good one, this gratin; I’m proud of it. It’s the kind of success that keeps me cooking.
Spanish Chickpea Gratin (serves 4 as an entree, 6-8 as a side dish)
2 (15 oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed OR 3 cups cooked drained chickpeas
2 tbsp olive oil
4 medium red onions, halved and sliced
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Salt to taste
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dry sherry (preferably Amontillado)
1 cup vegetable broth
3/4 lb (12 oz) spinach, roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
For breadcrumb topping:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves
1 tbsp smoked paprika (pimenton)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 slices rye bread (preferably stale), torn into pieces
1/4 cup finely grated Manchego cheese (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350º F, and lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking dish.
Optional: Place half of the chickpeas in a medium mixing bowl, and use a potato masher or large fork to mash them into a chunky paste. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large deep-sided skillet over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes, or until the onions are soft and starting to color. Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to coat the flour with oil. Add sherry and cook for a minute or two, until the liquid has reduced and thickened. Add vegetable broth and bring to a simmer; let cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the liquid has thickened to a gravy-like consistency. Turn off the heat and stir in chickpeas and spinach, letting the spinach wilt slightly from the heat in the pan. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Transfer the mixture to the baking dish.
In a food processor, combine olive oil, garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper, and pulse until the garlic is finely chopped. Add rye bread and pulse until it forms coarse breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the top of the gratin, followed by cheese (if using). Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the top is deeply browned and the whole thing is bubbling and fragrant.
Remove the gratin from the oven and let it sit for 5-10 minutes before serving. Leftovers will keep in a covered container in the fridge for 3-4 days.