Monday, September 13, 2010

Socca and Beignets de Fleurs de Courgettes

If you'd a fan of chickpeas, I think you'll love Nice. Two of the regionals specialities of Nice are chickpea related - socca and a variety of beignets (I like the ones of fleurs de courgettes, or squash blossoms) Socca is a type of flatbread made from chickpeas flour, water, olive oil, salt and pepper, at least in Nice. In Genoa it's called farinata and also has onions and rosemary in it. I'm a fan of both, though unfortunately I've not tried the Italian version yet except for making it at home (and making it at home is not the same...). The beignets are chickpea batter fritters of a variety of vegetables and fish. I'm vegetarian, so I've avoided the ones with fish.

Back to socca - I've been cooking a version of socca, a very thin crepe made in a cast-iron pan on the stovetop, back in DC. Or at least I thought I was cooking socca. I was not. I was making something inspired by socca, but definitely not socca. Socca is apparently baked in an oven (wood-fired if you're authentic, apparently, and whatever that means in this day and age!). It's not cooked on a stove-top. So to all my friends who enjoyed my stovetop version, sorry!

The first version of Socca I tried in Nice was a thick (compared to the crepes I was making back in DC),   flatbread baked on a huge (5 ft in diameter) cast-iron pan in an oven. I procured this version at Chez Rene Socca at 1 Rue Pairoliere, a few doors down from my apartment (13 Rue Pairoliere). I absolutely loved how soft and moist the socca was, and how simple it was too - just chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. It's soft enough that instead of cutting slices, the server just made slashes and scraped pieces of socca up in a scooping motion, serving a heaping plate of socca strips/scraps.

In some ways it's too soft though. I was lucky to get the first or second serving of socca the first time around at Chez Rene. The second time, I was fourth or fifth in line, and hence got the middle of the pan. That was pretty much soft, semi-gooey socca. Too soft for my taste. According to some of the locals I befriended at Distillations Ideales though, that's what socca is like closer to the middle (except at Chez Pipo).

That is also how they do it at Chez Theresa at their stand in the Cours Saleya - a tourist trap of a socca place, since they make the socca at an oven in the old town and then motor it over to the Cours Saleya (5 min drive), charging 3 € (It's 2.5 €  at Rene Socca). After trying Chez Theresa twice, I think it's the same quality as Rene Socca, but with longer wait times because the oven baking the socca is not in the Cours Saleya where they serve it.

Socca at Chez Pipo (highlighted by David Lebovitz here, including good photos) is also delightful, at 2.5€ an order. Like Rene Socca, it's served fresh from the oven - mine came to me piping hot. It also as thick as at Rene Socca. However it has a crispier top than Rene Socca, and looks like it baked and cut easier without sticking to the Pan, unlike Rene Socca. So Chez Pipo has better socca than Rene Socca in my opinion, because of that crispy crust that it has while also maintaining the moist interior. And the flavor is still simple, just chickpea batter and salt!

In fact, said locals I was chatting with at Distillations Ideales (another story, I swear, involving plenty of smoke and wishing that I had a pipe) also thought that Chez Pipo has the best socca in Nice, in part because of that crispy crust all over the socca rather than just being crispy at the edges like everyone else is.

I've been experimenting with socca now that I'm back in DC, and while I can not get it as good as Pipo, not having the oven they do, I've managed to make a respectable socca with a moist interior and crispy crust thanks to my broiler.

As for those delightful beignets, my favorite is the beignets de fleurs de courgettes, or squash blossom fritters. They're usually seasoned with salt, though I think they could use more. They're also very simple and something I think that can be found also at any Nicoise restaurant as an appetizer. Of course they are fried, which is what makes them taste so good. And since they're available for 3 € at Rene Socca, they're cheap enough that I'll probably gorge on them every day.

2 Amys in DC occasionally serves squash blossom fritters as a summer special. Having tasted them in Nice and seeing them regularly available, I wish 2 Amys made them available more often because they're so tasty! (It could be the psychology of being in a foreign locale tasting a regional dish that is enhancing my memory of the taste beyond reason though...).

At any rate, when I was planning my trip to Nice, a culinary tour was not the main reason I was going there. But once I found out about socca, and actually tried it while there, socca and beignets de fleurs de courgettes became an obsession of mine. I ate both whenever I could. And while I'll probably not make the beignets back here in DC, the version of socca that I make is better for me having gone to Nice and trying it there. Socca was not the only reason I enjoyed Nice, but it definitely was a good one.

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