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Chickpea Crepes: Protein Inside-Out

Ever since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about the challenge of coming up with a proper vegetarian centerpiece for major celebrations–one with a single, unified dish cut up to share, something with protein, not just vegetables or grains, something with great complex flavor and no artificial ingredients.

This is apparently a tall order. For months now I’ve scoured vegetarian and vegan cookbooks in hopes of some serious suggestions and come up nearly blank. Perhaps it’s because most vegetarian cooking in America is based on southeast Asian vegetarian cuisines, which don’t emphasize centerpiece or “main” dishes as much as assortments of several smaller ones, none of which necessarily take the lead. Or because a lot of the nondairy, non-egg vegetarian cooking consists of beans, rice, tofu, seitan and vegetables–not a bad thing, but not usually pretty or convincing as a centerpiece and occasionally incomplete on protein or complex flavor (there’s an awful lot of salt or soy sauce in some of these cookbooks). The few centerpiece dishes with a meatloaf-style filling wrapped in puff pastry or phyllo or potatoes seem to include premade seitan (high in salt) and/or things like mushrooms or eggplant or spinach and nuts with a fair amount of starch for binder, which means you’re repeating starches between the filling and the wrapper and not providing much protein.

One solution might be to put the protein, or at least some of it, in the wrapper itself, so the filling can be flavorful vegetables and so on but not have to come up to the concentrated protein level of meat.

Chickpea flour crêpes are one such possibility, and they’re very easy to make. A bit stronger in flavor than ones made with wheat flour, they hold together well in the frying pan and come out thin, springy and wrappable without the need for eggs. They also take well to a variety of spices and herbs, so they could complement Indian, North African, or European-style fillings. With a little adjustment, they even do surprisingly well with sweet fillings.

Italians and people from Marseilles make a thick chickpea pancake called socca with a basic batter of chickpea flour, water and salt and pepper. Cut in wedges like pizza or polenta and served as a snack or light supper dish, it’s satisfying and rustic, but not really suited as a wrapper. But a thinner version could well be.

I tinkered a bit with a very basic socca-style recipe I found in one vegetarian cookbook to make crêpes and it came out much better than I expected. The lemon juice in this recipe tones down the strong beany flavor of the chickpea flour surprisingly well and the dash of nutmeg lends the crêpes a satisfying egginess without eggs.

I’ve also cut the salt way down from the original recipe, the typical kneejerk teaspoon per recipe of yesteryear, which you really need to watch out for with vegetarian soy-heavy cookbooks that are trying to make up for a lack of meat. If you’re going with a savory filling, you won’t need a heavily salted wrapper on top of it, and if you’re going with a sweet filling, you really don’t want it.

You could fill individual crêpes like blintzes or crespolini and bake them in a casserole with or without a sauce. But for a centerpiece dish you could maybe overlap the open crêpes in a baking pan and roll the layer around a loaf-type filling, brush with butter or oil or sprinkle with cheese and herbs and bake it that way. Or perhaps you could make a really big single crêpe like a dosa wrapper in a big enough griddle or frying pan.

Chickpea crêpes

Makes about 12 7-8″ crêpes; scale up as desired

  • 1/2 c. chickpea flour
  • 1/4-1/3 c. wheat flour
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • dash or two of ground nutmeg
  • water, enough to make a thin batter
  • butter or oil for frying

Combine the dry ingredients and stir in water gradually to make a paste (make sure all the flour is incorporated) and then continue adding water and stirring with a fork or whisk to create a batter that thins out evenly like cream. It should be about 2 cups total volume but go by the texture. Rest the batter a little (15-30 minutes) so the flour absorbs the water and then check the batter and stir in a little more water if necessary to make sure it’s really thin, so it doesn’t make thick heavy crêpes.You might do a test crêpe to check that the batter is right.

Heat the pan and add a half-teaspoon or so of oil or swipe the pan with the end of a stick of butter–either way, just enough to coat the pan thinly. Lift the pan away from the heat, pour a few tablespoons of the batter in the center and quickly swirl the pan so it spreads out evenly in a circle about 7-8 inches wide. Set the pan back on the burner and let the crêpe cook just until dry. Slide a spatula under and flip it gently just to cook the other side for 20-30 seconds. Slide the crêpe out onto a plate and swipe the pan again with a little oil or butter. Make the next crêpe and keep stacking.

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