Apparently cicerchia has been a famine food for eons because it can withstand brutal droughts that would kill any other legume, save the tepary bean of the Sonoran Desert (as it happens, I am growing tepary beans now). So in tough times, people in Italy, Spain, India, Ethiopia, and elsewhere relied on cicerchia as their main sustenance for months.
Bad idea. Chickling vetch contains something called diaminopropionic acid. Translated, this means your ass will wither away and you'll get nerve damage if you eat these beans every day for months. The disease is called lathryism; cicerchia's proper name is lathyrus sativus.
I emailed Ken. "Um, I have a bunch of these beans. Should I eat them?" Ken said sure, and in his book he says, "eating the beans now and then poses no danger, only excessive consumption every day for several months. Thorough soaking and cooking also purportedly leaches out most of the neurotoxin." Well, hell! I just played around with sassafras, which some say will give me cancer. Screw it, let's cook some cicerchia!
Right out of the gate, I wanted to be sure I could taste the beans, so I just whipped up a simple cicerchia bean salad: beans, feta cheese, lots of parsley, garlic, and some grape tomatoes. Good olive oil and a hit of lemon juice at the end. Easy-peasy.
My first taste of the villainous bean ...
Damn. I knew this was going to happen. I like cicerchia beans. I mean really like them. They taste like a cross between a chickpea and a lentil, with the texture of a black-eyed pea. There's something else, a dusty kind of flavor, not earthy so much as desert-y. Absolute effing bummer. I could see why the Slow Food movement fought to bring this bean back from the edge of extinction in Umbria, and I definitely could see why hungry Ethiopians could gorge themselves on these things ... and then get permanent nerve damage that includes the withering of the gluteus maximus.
So what did I do? Well, I made several other dishes with them. Consider it a weight-loss diet.
I was watching Top Chef after eating this salad when I was struck by an inspiration: cicerchia are famine food in Italy, and so are acorns. I still had some acorn flour left over from last winter, so why not make an acorn flour pasta stuffed with a puree of cicerchia beans, pecorino cheese, and herbs? Truly a gourmet dish made from humble ingredients.
Only I failed miserably at my first attempt. I forgot that my acorn flour is pretty coarse—coarse enough to disrupt the gluten formation in the wheat flour it's cut with. The pasta dough just fell apart. Fail. Then I added too much olive oil and lemon juice to the pureed cicerchia beans. They became more of a hummus than a pasta filling. Double fail.
What now? Now I took my inspiration from Top Chef, where nearly every week one contestant has his or her dish fail. How they respond is the question. So I decided to roll out the dough by hand to make acorn flour piadine, which are essentially Italian tortillas. Then I just plunked the cicerchia bean dip into a bowl. There. Dinner. Chips and dip. Sue me.
Holly A. Heyser
It was good, too. I adjusted several things and got the pasta and filling recipe right, so if you want to make cicerchia bean agnolotti, as was my initial plan, you can now. I can tell: you're feeling better about rushing out to the store for acorn flour and rare Italian beans ...