Dishes with history, provenance and ones that create a memory the first time you try them are my favorite kind. I recently had Zuppa di Fave Secche (Dried fava bean soup) and it made a lasting impression. I had it for lunch in Mantova (Mantua) northern Italy, at Piccola Osteria Andes. This is where my discovery of the soup’s recipe and centuries-old history began.
The funny thing is, I didn’t even order the soup. Tom, my partner did. We always trade tastes and I wanted to steal his switch dishes right after trying it. With the help of Google Translate, and broken English and Italian, I got glimmers of the recipe from our host and owner, a man from Puglia, southern Italy.
It went something like this,
Me: “Fava beans, dry or fresh?”
Him: “Dry.” (I assumed so, based on the color of the soup, since it wasn’t bright green like fresh favas)
Me: “Chicken broth or just water?”
Him: “Unclear answer.”
Me: “Soffritto*, or no soffritto?” (a soup base of sautéed onion, carrot and celery)
Him: “No soffritto” (His answer flip flopped. My interpretation was that he didn’t use soffritto, but he suggested that I do so.)
What he didn’t mention at all was the use of a potato, which I’ll get to shortly.
In a previous blog post, I mentioned I drew inspiration from my recent trip to Italy for new food and recipes. I’ve shared one already, Drunken Spaghetti. After tasting the dried fava soup, I knew I would research, make, and share it here.
While having dinner with my friend Rosetta, I told her about the four stand out dishes I had on my trip that I wanted to recreate for this blog. As I went into details, she pulled out various traditional Italian cookbooks. “You mean this?” she asked. Here, I was enthusiastically trying to recreate my favorite dishes and she already had variations of the recipes and the history. Figures. She is from southern Italy and told me that Puglia (a region in Italy) is the point of origin and that the dish is called “Maccu”. The Maccu version is thicker than soup, but not quite a paste like, say, hummus. In my first recreation attempt, the flavor was good, but it wasn’t creamy as I remembered from Mantova. Rosetta suggested adding a potato.
After our conversation, I researched “Maccu” recipes online to see how close I got from my reverse-engineered attempt. Pretty darned close as it turns out. What was missing? A potato! (I found that there are lots of other variations, as well, which include fennel bulb and even tomatoes). But when you have something for the first time and like it a lot, that stays as your source of truth. What I had in Montova was thinned to a soup but still with plenty of heft.
Here’s where the history deepens. Most of my research credits Sicily, not Puglia as the source of the dish. A dish that research also tells me is from the 14th century (and some say back to ancient Rome) and was served toward the end of winter to welcome spring, using up dried beans to make room for the new fresh ones. What a lovely representation of seasonal cycles!
From northern Italy in Mantova, to southern continental Italy in Puglia, to even deeper south in Sicily, I hope you make and enjoy this dried fava soup – regardless of its provenance!
Here’s the recipe:
- 2 cups dried and peeled fava beans
- 1 small yellow onion (yields about 1 cup, finely diced)
- 2 trimmed celery stalks (yields about 1/2 cup finely diced)
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1 medium russet potato, or 3 small new (baby) potatoes
- 2 teaspoons kosher (not table) salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for dressing the soup
- 1 cup chicken broth (optional, and as needed)
- Soak dried fava beans in cold water overnight (12-18 hours). Cover beans by at least 4 inches of water
- When ready to make the soup, drain, rinse and drain beans again
- Finely dice the celery and onion
- Bring a large stock pot to medium heat and sauté the onions and celery in olive oil until softened (approximately 7 minutes). Stir occasionally. Do not let the onions brown. Add the minced garlic to the pot in the last minute
- While the onions and celery are sautéing, wash and peel your potato(es). Slice in 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) medallions
- Add the beans to the pot with the sautéed onions and celery, then top with the potato slices. Cover all beans and vegetables with water by 1 inch (2-3 cm)
- Bring to a boil, stir, and then reduce to a simmer and cover. On medium-low, gently simmer for 75-90 minutes until the beans are soft. If you keep the lid covered, you ought not need to add any water. Stir occasionally to avoid beans burning on the bottom of the pot. At 75 minutes, test a bean for softness/doneness by eating one
- Dried fava beans are hard by nature. When fully cooked through, they should be soft, but will still feel a little al dente. Keep simmering until they are fully soft. Unless you dry fresh beans yourself, you’ll have no idea how old the beans are. Older beans take longer to cook through, thus the wider range of cooking time. Mine, for example, took 90 minutes because they’ve been in my cupboard for over a year (or two… who’s counting?)
- Once the beans are soft, save one cup of the bean broth (set aside)
- Add the kosher salt and pepper and use an immersion or regular blender to puree the beans. Blend to your desired consistency (I like mine smooth).
- Once blended, check for salt-level and for the soup’s consistency. If it is too thin, bring it back to the stove and simmer until it’s reduced to your liking. If it’s too thick, either add chicken broth or the reserved bean stock to loosen it. If you added chicken broth, return the pot to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes to ensure it’s fully integrated
- Ladle soup into bowls or cups, and drizzle with your best quality extra virgin olive oil
- Serve with a side of bitter greens (example: chicory (traditional style), grilled or baked radicchio, collard greens, swiss chard, etc.)
*It’s So(fritto) Fun!: As mentioned above, soffritto is the Italian word for a carrot, onion and celery mix, a standard flavoring base for stocks and soups. The French name is Mire Poix. In a classic Soffritto or Mire Poix, the recipe is two parts onion to one part carrot and celery. The American Cajun/Creole version of soffritto is named “Holy Trinity.” However, this version swaps out the carrot for a green bell pepper. In the recipe, above, I did not use carrots because I didn’t want to add any sweetness.