It’s amazing how much flavor can be sqeezed out of a few, simple ingredients. And I truly do mean a few – all of 6…including salt and pepper. And yet, every bite offers you a bit of savory, molasses-like heaven and the satisfying chew from the pasta and chickpeas. I offered to make this for my girlfriend Andi years ago, when I was living in Philadelphia and she was visiting me.
‘Great!‘ She said. ‘So what’s in it?’
Pasta, onions and chickpeas.
‘That’s it?‘ I observe a slight droop of her lower lip.
Yes. I know it sounds really simple, but believe me when I tell you it’s really delicious.
‘Oh, I’m sure it is.’ Then, after a reflective minute or so…’How about if we add red peppers?‘
That would be great Andi, but then it wouldn’t be Pasta e Ceci…it would be something else. And I really want to make it for you.
‘Of course.’ Another reflective minute goes by. ‘Can we add a little sausage maybe?’
We went on like this for a bit, and a few hundred ingredient suggestions later, she finally settled into the idea of eating this rather simple combination of ingredients her friend had offered to put together for her.
After all that, it’s a good thing for me that she ended up loving it from the first bite, right? Yes. Thanks for hanging in there, my dear, sweet Andi!
It’s one of the dishes I’ve taken with me from childhood. I’ve seen many, many wonderful-sounding Pasta e Ceci recipes out there, but most of them are really more soups and contain other ingredients like carrots and bay leaves. I make mine the way my mom did, as a straight-up pasta dish.
While the chickpeas provide the most satisfying texture and substance, the browned onions are what steal the show in this dish. They are the savory, flavor-packed element that makes the rigatoni absolutely scrumptious, even in all of their simplicity.
making chickpea & onion pasta
To make this dish, trim the tip and root from 4 large onions, cut them in half and remove the skins. Slice the onions vertically, from root to stem into thin slivers. Make sure the slivers are similar in size, as it will help them to cook and caramelize more evenly.
My rule of thumb for this dish, since I’ve made it for 2 to 9 people, is to use one onion per person. Which may SEEM like a lot, but they really do shrink down to practically nothing in the cooking process. Not only that, but the onions ARE the condiment. They are the only thing in this uber simple pasta sauce that creates the unforgettable, sugary-musky-savory flavor we crave. So let’s use them up!
Since I’m talking rules of thumb for adapting the ingredients in this recipe depending on the number of folks you’re cooking for, then I also suggest adding 1 tablespoon of olive oil per onion, PLUS ‘uno per la pentola,’ or one for the pot. It’s an Italian expression that somehow helps to guarantee that there will enough of whatever condiment or rice or pasta dish that you’re making. My mom always says the same thing when she makes risotto. When I make risotto I throw two handfuls of Arborio or, preferably, Carneroli rice in the pan and then add an additional handful ‘just because.’ I must say that there’s always plenty to go around when I follow this formula. I’ve learned to just listen to this directive and somehow things always work out perfectly.
Chickpeas are just as straight-forward. A 29-oz. can of chickpeas is great for a family of four, but if you’re cooking for two, grab the 14- or 15- oz. can. Or use two 29-oz. can if you’re cooking for 8 or 9 people. I think you’re probably getting a sense of the formula here. Use 3/4 of a pound of pasta per four people and you complete the picture. You are now empowered!
Heat the largest, nonstick skillet you have on medium-high heat and add 5 tablespoons of olive oil. The width of the skillet is important because it allows more of the onion slivers to have direct contact with the heat. When the oil begins to swirl from the heat (don’t allow it to smoke), add the onion slivers.
Stir them gently to make sure all slivers are thoroughly coated in oil. Cook them on medium-high heat for 5 minutes to begin softening them. This will allow them to start releasing some of their moisture.
Then lower the flame to medium-low and allow to cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until the onions are deeply browned and slightly sticky, about 40 minutes. During this process, reduce the heat if the onions are sizzling or scorching or raise the heat if onions are not browning at all after 15 minutes or so. Be sure to check in on the onions and give them a stir every 10 minutes or so. The exact cooking time can vary depending on the size of the onions, their liquid and sugar content, and their age, which is why it’s important to check in on them regularly!
Make sure not to mix the onions too much, though. You want to make sure they have enough time to chum it up with the heat of the flame so that they start to caramelize.
They’ll first start to look like this, 5 minutes into cooking.
Then this, 10 minutes into cooking.
And then, finally, this once it’s 40 minutes into cooking. Hard to believe this big ol’ skillet was filled all the way to the top with onion slivers when we first started, eh?
If you’re like me and fear getting focused on something else I’m doing or preparing and forgetting our dear onion slivers, you’ll set a trusty kitchen timer both to keep you honest and to make sure you actually get to eat them. They are not good charred!
The onions are fully caramelized when they develop a molasses-like color and flavor. Add sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste and mix well. Given the passive time required to make these lovelies, consider making a big batch of caramelized onions to have on hand to spice up other dishes that you plan on making. They’re absolutely divine on top of so many things. Have you ever tried topping a nice piece of brie cheese with them? It makes the best sandwich ever! They will keep refrigerated for a week and for several months when frozen. The aroma that permeates the house when you caramelize them is bewitching. Consider yourself warned!
Halfway through cooking the onions, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a good handful of Kosher salt and then add 3/4 of a pound of pasta (the shape is up to you, though penne or rigatoni work quite well) and 1 29-oz. can of drained canned chickpeas or 3 cups of dried chickpeas that have been pre-soaked and pre-cooked.
Cook following the box instructions of the pasta box. Drain the pasta when it’s comfortable to bite into but still nice and firm. Then add them to the skillet with the caramelized onions and mix very well. Spoon out into individual bowls, add some fresh-cracked pepper and serve. Makes 4 servings.