With the beginning of Spring emulating the middle of a Siberian winter, I have headed this month to the stores. But this particular store cupboard recipe derives from a land of heat and culinary wealth, has a story to tell at its table, and a religious following — which maybe just as well, because it is not exactly a dish that you eat with your eyes. Simon Amstell would find it palatable — might enjoy it— as would many Millennials dabbling in conversions to urban ‘Veganity’; It may be ready to find new followers for new times.
Macco is a Sicilian ‘minestra’ or ‘zuppa’, a thick ‘soup’ of sorts, traditionally served on the Feast Day of San Giuseppe (or St Joseph as we know him) — legal father of Jesus, carpenter, patron saint of workers, and the saint who is credited in Sicily with saving the island from famine following some severe weather conditions (a drought) back in the Middle Ages. His Feast day is celebrated on March 19 and, in Sicily, you would likely be eating maccù (as it is known in the local dialect) on that day in his honour.
Giorgio Locatelli refers to it as ‘bandit food’, made from the kind of raw ingredient a local bandit could carry in his pocket; it is ‘cucina povera’ at its zenith — dried broad beans, re-hydrated and cooked down to a purée, bitter greens wilted and cooked with garlic and chilli, if you are lucky, may sit alongside, and an Italian onion soffrito atop for additional flavour — the latter cobbled together in my house by adding a few fennel seeds and a cultivated fennel bulb to an onion, adding a hint at verisimilitude — not exactly comparable to the flavour of wild mountain fennel, unavailable much outside of Mediterranean climes, that is infinitely preferable and properly authentic.
The recipe here is an adaption from an original gifted by the late Antonio Carluccio in a BBC4 documentary in which he re-created dishes inspired by Tomasi di Lampedusa’s posthumously published Sicilian-based masterpiece “Il Gattopardo” (The Leopard).
Method: Soak a quantity of dried fava beans (broad beans) overnight in copious quantities of cold water. Place the drained beans in a pan the next day, cover generously with fresh cold water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook, covered, for as long as it takes for the beans to be properly tender (up to 3 hours is quite normal).
In the meantime, make a soffrito. Peel and finely chop one large onion and one fennel bulb (optional) and cook slowly in a little olive oil with a few crushed fennel seeds (more or less depending on how much you like the taste of aniseed). The soffrito should finish up soft, turning golden, sweet, well flavoured, not unduly coloured; season the soffrito to taste, set aside and keep warm until you need it (or reheat before serving).
In another frying pan (with a lid), and when the beans are already tender, heat some more olive oil over a gentle heat and add some sliced garlic; allow the garlic to cook just enough to reduce the rawness and to start giving off fragrance rather than odour, don’t allow to colour or to burn. Add a few flakes of dried chilli (to taste), and some prepared bitter greens (chicory or mustard greens are ideal; chard, cavolo nero or other type of spring cabbage will do just fine). Add a little water, cover, and cook until they are wilted and tender; season.
When the fava beans are fully tender, season the pot with salt and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Remove the beans from their cooking liquid (reserve the liquid) and beat, blend, or push through a mouli to make a thick purée — this soup should have a velvety spreading texture like a soft polenta, not be swimming in water — use as much of the reserved liquid as is necessary to help create the desired consistency. Taste for seasoning, adjust as necessary. Serve the soup on a plate, drizzle with olive oil. Serve the wilted greens alongside and spoon some of the soffrito over the top of the ‘soup’. Eat hot, and enjoy or celebrate, as appropriate. Speaking for myself, and having anticipated something merely comforting, if not earthy, I am a convert to a dish with an unexpected taste of the sublime.