The food photos in my my Instagram feed have been dominated by baked goods for (ahem) quite some time. It’s been a big year for cakes and other baking on the blog and I haven’t posted anything remotely green or vegetable-focused since the pickled radishes in March and the recipes for two summer salads in February. It’s not like I subsist on cake, though what bliss that would be; merely that my recent foodie moments have tended to be sweet and baked. I only share recipes here that I absolutely love and it seems that I just haven’t been very adventurous in the vegetable department lately.
In an effort to swing back to my usual interest in vegetables (and more balanced blog offerings), I decided to invest in a new cookbook. It’s hard not to be inspired by Sarah Britten’s new book, My New Roots (or her blog of the same name) with its bright, soft photographs and vibrant, colourful food. You’ll never catch me advocating dietary labels or extremes in any form, and Sarah is much the same. Her food is mostly vegetarian, mostly vegan in fact, and mostly gluten-free. She’s squarely focused on seasonal, plant-based wholefoods but it all comes off as innovative and exciting rather than pious and restrictive.
Every recipe I’ve tried so far has been deliciously different, even when no animal products whatsoever are included. When I prepare vegetarian food (which makes up the majority of my diet) most of the time I simply cook or assemble the dish and then add feta. Is the flavour missing a little something? Add feta. Could it be more delicious? Add feta. To this end, I always have a big tub of goat feta in the fridge as it just has this magical way of enhancing most food with its savoury, piquant tang. It’s become a habit because, well, feta is awesome, but it also feels a little lazy. It’s nice to be shown an alternative way to the same happy tummy.
Now as it happens, the recipe I’m posting here does feature feta, but I can tell you that I have happily left it out altogether or substituted a swipe of labne and/or a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts. Sarah’s recipe is a concept more than anything. To celebrate spring, she features asparagus, caramelised onions and herbs piled upon socca (more about this soon) to construct a gorgeous, fresh, pizza-esque plate. My version is barely changed – I’ve added courgettes to the asparagus, roasted the vegetables instead of grilling them, and freshened the dish with lemon zest and juice. It’s flexible. I can just see a late summer version using roasted eggplant, capsicum and basil pesto.
Now to the other new discovery – socca – a savoury pancake made from chickpea flour (sometimes sold as besan flour in Indian grocery stores) mixed with seasonings, oil and water. It’s gluten-free, if that’s important to you, and when eaten hot and freshly cooked it is completely addictive with a madly crispy texture and a spicy, peppery flavour. Sarah’s version uses ghee as the fat and is cooked in a frying pan. I had trouble with my socca sticking when cooked this way, but some wider reading revealed that it is traditionally made with olive oil and cooked in a wood-fired oven (its origins are from Nice, France). I’ve had the most success with cooking it my heavy roasting dish inside a hot oven so that’s how I do it now. I like David Lebovitz’s tip to add a little ground cumin to the batter to mimic the smokiness of the traditional method. Pairing it with chilled rosé as a pre-dinner nibble is also a great suggestion.
Socca alone is so awesome that you might demolish it all before you remember to create your little spring pizza. That’s ok – here’s to inspiration, not restriction!
Socca (Savoury Chickpea Pancakes)
1 cup chickpea (besan) flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1 1/4 cups warm water
3 Tbsp melted ghee or olive oil
Measure the chickpea flour, salt, pepper and cumin into a large bowl and whisk together to ensure there are no lumps. Pour in the water and ghee or olive oil and whisk together until fully combined. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and allow to soak at room temperature for at least two hours. This soaking time is important – chickpea flour is made from ground, raw chickpeas so you need to soak it to make it more digestible, just as you would with whole chickpeas. In fact, Sarah recommends preparing the batter in the morning to soak all day before cooking it for dinner. Note the mixture will separate while sitting – simply whisk it back together before cooking.
When ready to cook the socca, choose a heavy frying pan (cast iron is ideal) or any other oven proof dish, and place it in the oven. Preheat the oven (with the pan inside) to at least 220°C / 430°F, or even higher if your oven can take it. Mine gets to 230ºC.
When the pan is thoroughly heated through, remove from the oven, coat the bottom with a little ghee or olive oil then pour in enough batter to coat the bottom evenly but thinly (a thin pancake is much tastier than a thick one). Place the pan back into the oven and cook until the pancake is opaque on top and starting to brown around the edges, about 5-8 minutes. If you wish, the pancake can be flipped and placed back in the oven to allow the top to brown and crisp slightly. Remove the socca to a plate and repeat with the remaining batter. Eat it as soon as possible, while still hot, cut into strips as a nibble, or topped with vegetables as a more substantial dish.
Socca with Caramelised Onion, Asparagus & Lemon
4 medium red onions
2 tsp ghee, coconut oil or olive oil
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 bunches asparagus
4 small courgettes (zucchini)
Herbs, such as parsley, dill and mint
Sharp feta (such as goat or sheep feta) – optional
Peel and thinly slice the onions. Heat some ghee, coconut oil or olive oil in a large heavy bottomed saucepan and add the onions with a hefty pinch of salt. Cook over a medium-low heat for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and caramelised. Add the balsamic vinegar towards the end to help lift the extra tasty bits off the bottom of the pan. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F. Prepare the vegetables to be roasted. Trim the asparagus and cut the courgettes into halves lengthwise. Toss the vegetables with a little oil, salt and pepper, and the zest of one lemon and arrange in a single layer on an oven tray. Slide into the oven and roast for about 15 minutes. Alternatively, grill the vegetables on a barbecue or grill plate until they are lightly charred and tender.
To assemble, place the socca (or slice of socca – the size of the pancake depends on the size of the pan it was cooked in) on a plate. Spread with caramelised onions, and top with vegetables, chopped herbs, crumbled feta and a squeeze of lemon. Serve with salad.