A Great Bean Soup Recipe
I'm starting today's entry with a recipe from Siracusa, in Sicily, is very of-the-moment, which is to say apropos of spring's arrival.
It is, in fact, traditionally made for the Feast of San Giuseppe, which was March 19; last week. But because spring comes earlier in Sicily than it does in the northeast of the United States, it's safe to say that this recipe will, any minute, be very of-the-moment here, too.
It is a soup that combines two foods that are preserved for winter - dried beans and dried chestnuts - with the greens that are just emerging from the cold winter earth. The greens can be foraged or cultivated chicory and dandelion, which in fact southern Italians lump together as cicoria. I also like the less bitter but still tonic-tasting furry-leaved borage that grows like a weed everywhere in southern Italy and is easiest to identify in early spring when the plant sports small but many purple flowers. Spinach works well, too. I especially like the small leaf spinach that is sold in almost every supermarket and green grocer these days. In Sicily, the soup would certainly have wild fennel fronds as well, no matter what the other green. But our domestic fennel greens don't have much flavor, so I add some crushed fennel seed to compensate.
I've specified certain beans in this recipe, supplemented with a bag of mixed beans, but you can use any beans you like, and possibly have on hand. If you went to a food market in southern Italy, the bean vendor would sell his own mix for maccu di San Giuseppe. The main point is to have many different beans. By the way, maccu made any other time of the year is, almost as a rule, in Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria, a puree of shelled, dried yellow fava beans. If you don't have dried chestnuts in your pantry - and who in America does? - it's not too late in the season to find them in an Italian market, or other specialty food store.
Maccu di San Giuseppe
(Mixed Bean, Chestnut, and Greens Soup for the feast of San Giuseppe)
Serves at least 12
(It reheats well)
1 pound mixed beans (I buy Goya's 16-bean soup mix)
1/4 pound lentils (preferably tiny lentils from Pantelleria or Umbria)
1/4 pound dried, peeled yellow fava
1/4 pound red kidney beans
2 ounces large lima beans or other large bean
2 ounces cannellini, or other large white beans
1/4 pound any other bean
1/2 pound dried chestnuts
1 cup finely chopped carrot
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, lightly crushed, or several sprigs of wild fennel greens
1 tablespoon salt
2 pounds fresh spinach, well-washed, left as whole leaves
Or, 2 pounds mixed spring greens, such as dandelions, chicory, borage, etc.
Rinse the beans and chestnuts. Place in a very large pot with cold water to cover by several inches - about 4 quarts of water. Let the mixture soak overnight - at least 8 hours.
Do not change the water, but add enough to come at least 3 inches above the beans. Add the chopped vegetables and the crushed fennel seeds (but not the greens, if using). Over medium heat, bring to a simmer, then simmer gently, partially covered, for about 2 hours, or until the largest beans are tender. About half way through the cooking, add the salt.
Add the well-washed spinach or other greens, and the fennel greens if using. Simmer, uncovered, another 10 minutes, or slightly longer, until the greens are well cooked and tender. Add more water if necessary to thin to a consistency you like. It should be thick, but still have some liquid. It will certainly need additional water if you reheat it.
Serve hot with extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle on top of each portion, and/or serve with hot pepper oil.
To make hot pepper oil, crush a few dried hot peppers into a small jar (or use crushed red pepper) and top with olive oil. Let stand at room temperature for at least 24 hours before using. Store at room temperature in a tightly closed jar for up to 3 months.