Skye Gyngell reveals how bland little chickpeas can be transformed into wonderful dishes simply by adding chilli, garlic and a magical blend of herbs and spices

Like all pulses and grains, chickpeas need to be well seasoned with attention and care, turning what can be dull and muddy into something creamy, sweet and nutty. The secret is to flavour them while they are still warm from the pan. Inject them with flavours that are punchy and vibrant and suddenly they are lively and moreish. Chilli is good, as are lemon juice or red-wine vinegar, garlic, olive oil and lots of herbs and spices – mint, parsley, coriander, marjoram and basil all work very well. Garlic is a given, and spices such as coriander seeds, cumin and cardamom are perfect for pairing with dishes that have a Middle Eastern or Indian feel. Finally, as with everything, season well with salt.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627,

To cook chickpeas

Put dried chickpeas in a bowl and cover with cold water. Allow to soak for at least four hours, if not overnight. When you are ready to cook them, drain and put in a saucepan and cover with fresh cold water, adding a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. I also like to add ingredients such as parsley stems, bay leaves and thyme. Whole heads of garlic and chillies also flavour the cooking water, and thus season the chickpeas as they are cooking. Cook for 40 minutes or until just tender to the bite.

Right before the end, season with a generous amount of salt. It is important not to season them before they are cooked as the salt (as with many pulses) encourages them to stay hard.

There are also some very good precooked chickpeas available to buy in tins – the best come from Spain.

Chickpea purée

Perfect to accompany a drink before the start of a meal, or it can be eaten as a part of many other small dishes as part of a mezze. Mezze is one of my favourite ways to eat: lots of little bits of this and that – grilled aubergine, pickled chillies, labne (a yoghurt cheese with a Middle Eastern heritage), feta, perfectly ripe tomatoes heavily drizzled with olive oil and on and on. The only utensil needed is warm, very thin unleavened bread to scoop it all up.

Serves 2 generously

200g/7oz cooked chickpeas
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
The juice of half a lemon
1 bunch of mint leaves only, finely chopped
1 bunch of coriander, well washed and finely chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
1 tbsp thick, Greek-style yoghurt
80ml/3fl oz fruity green olive oil
A good pinch of salt
1 tsp sweet paprika

Put the cooked chickpeas in a bowl, and mush roughly using the back of a fork until you have a coarse purée. Add the garlic, lemon juice, herbs, chilli and yoghurt and stir well to combine. Pour in the olive oil and add a good pinch of salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Spoon into a serving bowl, sprinkle over the paprika and serve.

Grilled sardines with chickpeas

Sardines work with all number of things – beetroot, horseradish, little roasted tomatoes... and chickpeas are very good, too. Their creamy texture and nutty flavour balance this oily little fish that tastes so completely of the sea.

Serves 4

8 very fresh sardines, scaled and gutted
Enough olive oil to brush the sardines
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g/7oz cooked, warm chickpeas
The juice of half a lemon
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, chopped
50ml/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Wedges of lemon to serve

Preheat your grill. Rub the sardines well with the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper. Lay the sardines on your grill and cook for two minutes on one side before turning and cooking for a further couple of minutes on the underside.

While the sardines are cooking, dress the warm chickpeas with the lemon juice and olive oil, add the crushed garlic and chopped parsley, and stir well to combine.

Once the sardines are cooked, divide between four warm plates and spoon over the chickpeas. Serve with a wedge of lemon.

Deep-fried chickpeas with chilli

These are like little bar snacks – perfect to eat alongside a glass of dry sherry such as fino at whichever time of the day you prefer. My friend Stevie made these tasty little treats for me in the kitchen at Petersham a couple of years ago and I must say I was dubious of the very idea of them – but I was very pleasantly surprised at how delicious I found them to be. I have added the chilli, though I don't think he would be displeased – the important thing is that they are seasoned well with salt and eaten while still warm.

Serves 2 generously

Corn oil
250g/8oz cooked chickpeas
A generous tsp of salt
1 diced red chilli

When deep-frying, I use corn oil – I find it the most neutral-tasting of all the cooking oils – though do not use it more than once, as it needs to be scrupulously fresh.

Pour enough oil into the base of a heavy and solid pan to cover by an inch or so. Place over a medium heat and allow the oil to heat. The perfect temperature for deep-frying is 160C/325F/Gas3. To test if the oil is hot enough, drop a chickpea into the pan – the oil should immediately sizzle and the chickpea remain on the surface.

Once the temperature is right, add all the chickpeas and cook for two to three minutes; their colour should slightly darken and the outside become crunchy. Remove using a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly on kitchen paper, then season generously with salt and scatter over the chilli. Eat while still deliciously warm.