Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

And on the Seventh Day, She Ate Fainá

by 
Jess Stephens
September 29, 2021

I moved in with an alcoholic in Buenos Aires when I was twenty. Sara was in her eighties and housed me while I studied at UBA. Each day, she cooked swoon-inducing dishes from her family's French, Spanish, and Italian heritage, holding court at her lace-covered table until I could not drink any more wine. That is, each day except Sunday. Sundays were for pizza. And, in Argentina, pizza is often accompanied with a thick slice of fainá, a chickpea flatbread.

Sara was a not-quite five foot tall insomniac. Her husband died in a plane crash in his forties, so she had been widowed for most of her adult life. She filled her days with reading and cooking, as if no amount of either could sate her. Sara never batted an eye when I came home in the early morning. She would only ask, “Did you enjoy yourself?” nodding pleasantly when I confirmed. On days when I wheezed from asthma, she would press a cut glass tumbler of whiskey into the hand that waved her away. (She frequently reminded me that it would be okay if I came home reeking of cigarettes, for she missed the smell.) I liked to imagine that Sara was how Grace Kelly might have aged, for both women shared glassy blue eyes, high cheekbones, fantastic jewelry, and regal posture. Sara would joke that her twelve years of English-language education under Irish nuns had evaporated save for the sentence, “Would you like a martini?”  

My upbringing was less than elegant. Dinners with my four brothers and sister were a proto-Hunger Games tableau--not because we lacked food, but because you needed to put food in your mouth immediately if you were to claim it. There was a hastily passed gallon of milk instead of wine and ESPN blaring from the television in place of the soft rumble of a magnetic city just past a balcony.

When Sara would allow me into the kitchen while she cooked, she would mock me as I scribbled approximations of ingredients and directions in a messy Spanglish. My tomato sauce, gnocchi, empanadas, whole roasted fish, and really anything I attempt with kidneys cannot compete with the memories of her meals.


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When I offered to cook or pick up groceries, she would have none of it. Though her hands were riddled with arthritis, Sara insisted on doing the grocery shopping herself. Whether she was selecting a fish or the day’s first baguette, she would leave the house impeccably coiffed and return to her kitchen ready to cook.

It’s so rare when one adult can give another exactly what they want, but each Sunday when the delivery person arrived, Sarah greeted him with sheer pleasure. It never made sense to me that a woman with such a discerning palate could be that excited for pizza and fainá. Sure, as a professional cook, I know that it’s nice to take a night off, but when Sara would bite into the fainá, her eyes would spark as she said, “It’s delicious, right?” to which I would always reply, “The best.”  

I started making fainá when I felt my partner of fourteen years slipping away. There is this limbo before something ends when you can’t quite sort out what went wrong and it makes you ravenous. Excavating the skillet from under the broiler to see a craggy circle of blackened alliums and golden flour brought me a comfort I could not have imagined. These days, I stuff my fainá full of chard, dressing it with any chili crisp or salsa macha I have on hand. Sarah would scoff at the hodge-podge, but only because she never liked garlic.

Seventh-Day Fainá

Prep Time: 10 Mins
 | 
Cook Time: 25 Mins
 | 
Serves 1, or 4 as a snack

Ingredients

1 1/3 cups chickpea flour

1 cup warm water

1 bunch chard, rinsed & drained, stems removed & diced, leaves roughly chopped

2 shallots, peeled and sliced

3 tbsp olive oil

Salt

Freshly cracked pepper

Optional: ground cumin, ground dried chili peppers, granulated garlic/onion, etc.

Prep Time: 10 Mins
 | 
Cook Time: 25 Mins
 | 
Serves 1, or 4 as a snack

Ingredients

1 1/3 cups chickpea flour

1 cup warm water

1 bunch chard, rinsed & drained, stems removed & diced, leaves roughly chopped

2 shallots, peeled and sliced

3 tbsp olive oil

Salt

Freshly cracked pepper

Optional: ground cumin, ground dried chili peppers, granulated garlic/onion, etc.

Ingredients

1 1/3 cups chickpea flour

1 cup warm water

1 bunch chard, rinsed & drained, stems removed & diced, leaves roughly chopped

2 shallots, peeled and sliced

3 tbsp olive oil

Salt

Freshly cracked pepper

Optional: ground cumin, ground dried chili peppers, granulated garlic/onion, etc.

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450F.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the chickpea flour and warm water until completely smooth, and season to taste with salt, freshly cracked pepper, and any spices you may wish to use. Allow the batter to rest for ten minutes, whisking occasionally; batter should be thin, with the consistency of heavy cream, and glossy. Some froth is okay!

3. While the batter rests, heat olive oil in a cast iron or oven-proof nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and gently fry the shallots and diced chard stems until they begin to crisp and color, 4-5 minutes. 

4. Add the chopped chard leaves to the pan (you may do this in batches if needed) and sauté with the shallots and stems until fully wilted and any released water has evaporated from the pan. Turn off the heat. Remove half of the chard-shallot mixture; save for another use. 

5. Evenly disperse the remaining vegetable mixture across the bottom of the skillet, adding more oil if necessary, and then carefully pour in the rested batter. Tilt the pan to coat, if necessary. 

6. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the pancake has set and the top has begun to dry and crackle. Switch oven mode to “broil” and briefly toast the top of the pancake until golden, 2-3 minutes more. 

7. Serve immediately: fainá can be either slid or inverted onto a platter and cut into slices.

About the Author

Jess Stephens

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