My husband is a scientist, which might sound nerdy and even dreary, in an academic institutional sort of way, but I think what he does is fascinating — and it also takes us to some pretty wonderful places. I've chatted over drinks with rocket scientists in Monte Carlo's grand old aquarium, and walked through aqueducts in Lisbon. We spend field research weeks in snowy Colorado, and I get to gallivant around Paris while he's ensconced in meetings. And yet in all of these lovely, exotic places, I have a very similar conversation at nearly every mixer, and it goes like this:
I am holding a glass of wine, standing in a corner, trying to make small talk with a scientist, nodding my head and feeling a little out of place (I don't have a Ph.D.) and carefully making conversation while clearly not having much in common, until he asks me what I do. "Oh, I'm a food writer," I say. "I run a website about cooking and write cookbooks." And then, almost invariably, his eyes light up. "Oh, well," he says a little bashfully. "I like to cook a thing or two."
Oh food. It's what we all have in common, and it's such a welcome cocktail party gambit. It also opens up some of the most interesting conversations I've had about food and cooking, as scientists get a chance to geek out over something other than remote sensing and snow grain measurements. The international makeup of these meetings also helps: I recently had a long exchange about Polish kielbasa and the nuances of pierogi, and listened to two scientists toss questions back and forth about Finnish fish preparation. A few years ago I had a memorable conversation about brewing beer with peanut butter while inching over a snow-covered Colorado mountain pass.
Maybe the best conversation I've had about food with a scientist, however, happened at a recent mixer, when Ali, a Turkish scientist working far away from home in Finland, lit up incandescent at the opportunity to talk about his favorite food, his grandma's food, his country's food.
Amid the kebabs and eggplant dip and descriptions of the family cottage on the beach, he got especially worked up about one simple dish: onions with sumac. I had mentioned how I've been loving this spice, which brings an intensely tart flavor balanced with a hint of muskiness. Sumac, it turns out, makes onions both tart and a little sweet, taking away their bitter edge, especially when you work it in with your hands. Ali demonstrated this energetically, his hands shaping onion salad in the air, so fresh and tart and strong, eaten with lots of parsley and the stuffed meatballs only grandmothers know how to make these days.
I've been thinking about onions with sumac ever since, and while I fully plan on making a proper onion salad soon, and serving it with the meatballs I'm going to learn how to make, I first worked them into this chickpea salad — a tart and pungent bowl of chickpeas and herbs. The onions aren't as overwhelming as you might think, especially after a night in the refrigerator, after the salt and sumac takes the edge off, and their flavors mingle with the tender chickpeas. Great with dinner; even better for lunch. And just one more cocktail party takeaway, for which I am so grateful.
Chickpea Salad with Red Onion, Sumac, and Lemon
Serves 6 as a side dish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
large red onion, sliced very thin
Italian parsley, leaves finely chopped
large lemon, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)
extra-virgin olive oil
5 to 6 sprigs
Cover the chickpeas with water in a large bowl and soak overnight. Or do a fast soak: Cover with an inch of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and soak for 1 hour.
Drain the soaked chickpeas. Cover with fresh water and stir in the garlic cloves and a few pinches of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for 60 minutes to 2 hours, or until just tender but not falling apart. You can also cook them in the pressure cooker for about 40 minutes (or according to your pressure cooker instructions). When cooked, spread on a large baking sheet to cool.
While the chickpeas are cooling, peel and quarter the onion. Shave it as thin as possible into a large bowl, using a very sharp knife or a mandoline. Stir in the sumac, chili powder, and salt. Use your hands to massage the spices and salt into the onions for several minutes. Drain off any liquid that develops in the bottom of the bowl.
Add the chickpeas and chopped parsley to the onions and use your hands or two forks to toss everything thoroughly. Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, and pomegranate syrup and toss with the salad. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Continue tossing until the onions are fully incorporated and no longer in small clumps. Refrigerate until serving (this salad gets better overnight).
Just before serving, finely chop the mint leaves and sprinkle over the salad.
Recipe Shortcut: You can also substitute 4 cans of canned chickpeas. Drain and rinse thoroughly before using. I do encourage you to use freshly cooked chickpeas; they are creamy and tender in a really different way than canned garbanzos.
(Images: Faith Durand)