On the Cycladian island of Sifnos, Sunday's dinner is in the oven the night before: a gloriously mellow soup of only chickpeas and onions, sparingly spiced, it simmers all night in a special clay vessel. In the smaller villages, the vessels are brought to the town bakers' on Saturday night, and next day, it is often the men who solemnly attend to the carrying of the pot back home for Sunday lunch. The island is known for its potters and pottery - no surprise that its most famous dish has its own dedicated piece of crockery - the skepastaria, pictured at the right.
Along with the unique clay pot, villagers insist that the specialness of their soup comes from using the purest rainwater, the freshest onions, and the tangy unfiltered olive oil from their own orchards. Not to mention the somewhat idiosynchratic mensural technique for guaranteeing the right amount of water! A local recipe source says that you add water to the crock pot and cant the vessel. When the water reaches the rim of the tilted vessel, the beans should be completely covered by the water. As it turns out, not all chickpeas are alike, some swell in the soaking more than others. So, the Sifnos cooks have an approximate starting measure of chickpeas (usually a kilogram), and then the amount of water depends on how they respond to the soak. The trick of adding water until the beans are covered in a tilted vessel works perfectly!
I first discovered this soup in a recipe from Paula Wolfert. She calls it Clay Pot Chickpea Soup in her book, The Slow Mediterrenean Kitchen. While acknowledging the Sifnian tradition of overnight cooking, Wolfert develops a somewhat quicker cooking version. This is a bit of a delicious irony: for her slow cooking bible, Wolfert speeds up the original recipe! The soup is very good just as she designs it, and I loved it enough to repeat it often, always promising myself to try out the longer slower cooking method next time.
And I eventually did. With utterly marvelous results:
The chickpeas, which never really got soft enough by the Wolfert method, were meltingly tender. The broth, too, was darker and richer. I'd like to think it was the perfectly imprecise measurement of the water! As for rainwater, I passed. Bottled water will do, if tap is not fine enough in your area. A clay pot to my mind is essential. I used a thinly glazed Amnion clay pot - they don't make this artisinal crockery any longer, but mine has been my bean pot of choice for almost 30 years. And instead of slow cooking all night, started mine in the morning and had it ready for for dinner.
2 cups chickpeas, soaked overnight.
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup best olive oil
2 medium red onions, chopped in a food processor
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt, bay leaf optional
flour and water to make paste seal for the clay pot.
freshly ground pepper
plenty of lemon quarters
finely minced parsely
A note about soaking. Best to begin the night before. In the AM, rinse and drain, then store in the refrigerator covered with water until you prepare the soup. One hour before you are ready to assemble the soup, remove from the refrigerator and add the baking soda. Then rinse and drain once more before cooking.
Assembling the soup:
Using a processor (a mini is just perfect) chop the onions very fine. Put the rinsed chickpeas into the pot, then add the onions, salt and optional bay leaf.
Pour in the olive oil and mix gently with a wooden spoon. Add water as described above: pour in enough to cover, then tilt the pot and continue to add water until water reaches the lowered rim and still well covers the beans.
Cover your pot and make a seal out of flour and water. Start with a cup of flour, adding water and more flour until you have enough to make a seal ring between the pot and cover.
Here is how the prepped Amnionware looks - pot sealed tight with the ring of moist dough.
Place the pot in a cold oven. Turn the dial to 425, and when the temperature is reached, about 15 minutes depending on the oven, reduce the temperature to 150 to 200 degrees and cook all day - six to seven hours will be fine. Then turn the oven off and count the minutes until dinner. The aromas will surely test your will power, and the sight of the finished dish with its handsome collar will definitely work for eye candy: