When sharing my plans to come to France, the reaction was surprisingly formulaic. I'd be met with a rush of excitement, a pause, and then the—what I learned to be inevitable—question, "won't you be lonely?"
Until the first person asked, it hadn't crossed my mind as something to be concerned about. Despite complete confidence in the answer, it felt peculiar to say aloud: "I don't really...get...lonely?" Asked over and over again, my response evolved. "I don't really get lonely, but any time I crave connection, I'll find it."
I went looking for it in Nice, choosing a 4-bed, women-only, shared loft space in a yoga studio for my AirBnB. After my first day exploring Vieux Nice alone, I came home to a new dorm-mate. A quatri-lingual, vegan, Norwegian, physiotherapy student with whom casual small-talk and pleasantries seamlessly made way for a 3-hour discussion of mental health, politics, science, religion, things loved, and things hated. By the end of it, it was clear: we were on this trip together now.
Over the next two days, we (along with her friend, best described as devastatingly sweet in the most genuine way imaginable): climbed to the highest point in the city, found contemporary art that even the contemporary-art-skeptic among us wanted to take home, saw most of Monaco after hopping on the wrong bus, floated what felt like too far out in the unbelievably clear ocean, sat in awe of the melodic landslide of stones each time a wave collided with the stone-rock beach, and ate some of the best Thai food this side of, well, Thailand, I'd imagine.
All of this would've been wonderful alone. Art, nature, travel; to get the most out of any of it, you need both monologue and dialogue. But then there's food. As we passed the green Thai curry around the table, one by one, eyes went wide, heads tilted as if to ask, "are you kidding me?" and bodies slumped into that melt-into-your-chair moment of bliss. Food requires company. Food is meant to be shared. I can think of no words, in any language, more thrilling than, "you have to try this."
As tempting as it was to break borders and make Thai food, Nice still has so much to offer. In honor of my vegan and gluten-free friends, it seemed only fitting to make socca. The traditional Nicois street food is a deeply savory chickpea pancake cooked on a massive stone beside an open flame. Cut into uneven shards, it's served in a paper cone, ideal for strolling and snacking.
Making it at home—unless you have a wood-burning oven, in which case, invite me over—is a little like the difference between toasting a marshmallow over a campfire vs. over a stove top. But we can mimic the intense heat by stealing a little tip from the good ol' American South: pouring the velvety batter into a piping hot cast-iron pan and then broiling. If you don't have a cast-iron, best to use the stove. I tried the broiler approach with stainless steel and ceramic, and neither held enough heat to get the socca where it needs to go. Non-traditional, but I found that adding a bit of cumin to the batter fooled my palate into detecting fire somewhere along the way.
However you get there, in the end there's a nutty pancake that's satisfying eaten off paper on the street, or treated more like a crepe at home, decked out with complementary fillings.
Socca (serves 5-6 as appetizer/snack)
2 cups chickpea flour
1/2 tsp cumin
1 cup water
1 1/2 TBS olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
If using a cast-iron...
1. Set oven to Broil.
2. Whisk all ingredients together. Batter should be very smooth. Allow to rest for 30 minutes. The rest time is crucial. Chickpea flour, full of protein but free of gluten, takes longer to hydrate than AP flour. The rest will ensure a soft, fluffy inside to contrast the crispy exterior we're looking for.
3. When your batter has been resting for 15 minutes, pop your cast-iron into the oven.
4. After 15 minutes, both your pan and your batter should be ready. Pull pan from the oven. Swirl 2 TBS olive oil in pan and add a quarter of your batter. It should sizzle, oh-so-satisfyingly. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top of the batter, too.
5. Place directly under broiler and cook for 5-7 minutes. It should blister and begin to blacken, but not burn.
6. Flip socca onto plate and cut into slices, or go the more traditional route and tear it into rough chunks.
7. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt, and serve, or add toppings (see below).
If using a stove-top...
1. Whisk all ingredients together. Batter should be very smooth. Allow to rest for 30 minutes. The rest time is crucial. Chickpea flour, full of protein but free of gluten, takes longer to hydrate than AP flour. The rest will ensure a soft, fluffy inside to contrast the crispy exterior we're looking for.
2. Heat oil in a large frying pan over high heat until shimmery and loose. Add a quarter of your batter.
3. Flip when top is bubbly and slightly dry. Allow other side to brown.
7. Flip socca onto plate and cut into slices, or go the more traditional route and tear it into rough chunks.
8. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt, and serve, or add toppings (see below).
I topped my socca with the mushrooms that made me go from hating mushrooms to craving them, and Emmental cheese (would be just as good with gruyere, jarlsberg, comte, or beaufort.
4c mushrooms, sliced
1 shallot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp thyme
2 tsp butter
3 TBS sherry
1 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
*Tip: treat mushrooms like steak. They have such a high water content that anything short of super-high heat will leave you short on color, which is the same as leaving you short on flavor.
1. Heat oil in a large frying pan over high heat. High, high heat.
2. When oil is shimmery and loose, and you can't hold your hand two inches away from the pan's surface for more than 5 seconds without it feeling too hot, place 2 cups of sliced mushrooms in an even layer across the pan. It's worth it to do this in two batches to maximize browning. Don't touch them. You'll want to mess with them. Don't, for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, flip one over. If it's golden-brown around the edges and a bit crispy, flip the rest and repeat on the other side. Dump into a bowl and repeat with remaining 2 cups. Add all mushrooms back to pan.
3. Add butter, shallot, garlic, and thyme, and stir constantly for 30-40 seconds.
4. Add sherry and stir constantly until most has evaporated, leaving a lovely dark glaze over the mushrooms.
5. Season with salt and stir a few slices of cheese in until melty.
Pop on top of the socca and serve as an appetizer that takes you on a ride. It will be earthy from the chickpea and mushroom, bright from the sherry and cheese, and sweet from the shallot and garlic.
Ricotta, pesto & roasted cherry tomatoes
Sauteed spinach, red onion, black olive & feta
Hummus, avocado, sun-dried tomato & pine nuts