Chickpea stew with wild fennel


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a recipe by Despina Siahuli

If there is anything I enjoy more than cooking, then this would have to be photo shooting. Being in London, I didn’t miss the chance to meet up with lovely Despina Siahuli, the chef behind Pan. Despina welcomed me in her East London kitchen and we spilled the beans of what it is like to be living in London, how much of Greek sunshine does she keep in her kitchen cupboards and of course, can you really cook authentic Greek food abroad? So, she cooked, I took the snaps and we enjoyed the best chick pea stew I had ever tasted. Chickpea stew with wild fennel.

Head straight to the recipe.

It’s not easy making a home away from home. If you have lived abroad, even temporarily there are a few things that will always be missed. Apart from your familiar faces, it’s the smells and flavours you find floating in your thoughts, very dreamlike but you cannot quite catch them. Despina, has tamed all the authentic Greek flavours, submitted them to ultimate tests and creates the best Greek dishes I have ever tasted.

How you define best, I hear you ask. Well, it sounds like an empty word sometimes, open to personal interpretations. I can tell you what I don’t necessarily consider best when it comes to food. That is fancy plating, elaborate smokes and foams. Food should be approachable, easy to access and free to enjoy without labouring over pots and pans for eternity. The best food, is simple food. A bowl of something to satisfy your hunger and lift your spirits. Ideally, it’s seasonal, with all the goodness the latest harvest has to offer. On this with Despina we are absolutely in tune: fresh, seasonal, everyday food that nourishes body and soul.

What it is like living in London?

It’s a love and hate relationship. London gives you so much. There can be opportunities to lift you up in every step. There is also frustration and disappointment hidden in the same bag. Despina paved her career as a chef working in small kitchens, handpicked for the quality of their food, their respect to seasonal ingredients and a healthy menu. It was no easy journey, but as all success stories go, after long hours of hard work, you do pave your own path. Despina locks herself in the kitchen and if something doesn’t turn out perfect, she subjects it to the meanest of tests until it succumbs and willingly gives out its full flavour. Cooking is chemistry after all, you need to go this extra mile to turn grandma wisdom to a truly iconic dish.

Currently, she shares her recipes through workshops in central London and she runs a small catering business of her own. You can find more about Despina’s work here.

Why we chose this chickpea stew with wild fennel?

Chickpeas have a deep, earthy flavour. Despina, could not think of a better representative of Greek comfort food and so much is true. No authentic Greek kitchen keeps away from a good stew, especially humble chickpeas. A dish true to our strong vegetarian traditions, although Greek cuisine was never marketed as such (damn you souvlaki).

Where did the fennel come from?  Well, when you live in a place, it rubs on you. Despina hand picked the wild fennel from allotments here in London and dried it herself. There are many stews to come, and one has to cherish their ingredients.

We topped the chickpeas with charred aubergine and also had a few peppers with garlic olive oil.

How much sunshine hidden in a cupboard?

London skies most often cover themselves in a thick layer of grey cloud. It’s charming how quickly clouds can make themselves scarce, let the sunshine in and come back as swiftly to envelope you. Well, some talk of British weather. In Despina’s kitchen however, I noticed sunshine was not coming through the window – it was a pretty dull day. Sunshine in this London kitchen hides in the cupboards.

There are timid sun rays when you look at the ingredients she keeps stashed away. Sundried tomatoes, preserved olives in jars, home dried herbs like oregano, thyme and of course our wild fennel. A block of chocolate from her favourite grocer wrapped in brown paper. Their sunshine also hiding in the fridge, homemade liqueur from the village back in Greece. There are also timid rays reflecting back from the bookshelves, the latest issues of taverna & Kennedy magazines. The food trends, the great new products, the stories. All in all, I found a soft sunshine reflecting on me from every corner, a Greek in London should never fear, we do carry some with us no matter where we go.

Chickpea stew with wild fennel

Ingredients

  • 400g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water with 2 tsps. of baking soda
  • 400g white onions, finely chopped
  • 350g leeks, untrimmed weight
  • 2-3 garlic gloves
  • 1/2 glass of white wine
  • 2 celery stalks, peeled and finely sliced
  • 2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 a small bunch of wild fennel tops or a small fennel bulb, finely sliced
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

How to make it:

  1. Next day. Drain the chickpeas, discard the water and give a good rinse. Place the chickpeas in a large heavy bottomed casserole. Cover the chickpeas with fresh water, bring to the boil for 10 minutes, then drain and rinse.
  2. Make sure there is plenty of water covering your chickpeas and then bring the chickpeas to a gentle boil and add the bay leaves.
  3. In a medium size pan, and over high-medium heat, warm up extra virgin olive oil for 30sec. Add the onion and cook for 5min, then add the garlic and the leeks and cook for another 10min, until tender and caramelised. Add the carrots, celery fennel and the wine and cook for another 10min. Transfer the mixture in the pot and mix well with the chickpeas. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the stew for 1 hour or until the chickpeas are soft enough, without being mushy.
  4. Adjust seasoning and add the lemon juice. Remove from the heat and let them to cool down.
  5. Pierce two aubergines all over with a fork. Place them directly over the flame on a gas stove, using high heat.

For the charred aubergine

  1. If you don’t have a gas stove preheat the oven to 200°C and place them whole in a heatproof dish in the oven for 20-30 minutes.
  2. When the aubergines are ready, peeled them and roughly chopped. Sprinkle some boukouvo (sweet dried chilli flakes) and sweet paprika and drizzle a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

I hope this chickpea stew will warm your heart as it did mine. You can find Despina at her latest workshop in Andros the first week on July. She is also organised many gatherings, stay tuned in her website to get the latest updates for pop-ups and supperclubs. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

From London with love,

Despina & Eugenia

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