It has become quite fashionable in Italy, even at some chic restaurants, to serve the traditional peasant dishes of what is called la cucina povera, or the cuisine of the poor. These dishes, based on ‘humble’ ingredients (some of which have ironically become quite expensive) and simple cooking techniques, were born out of necessity but are well loved in these relatively prosperous times, partly out of sheer nostalgia for what now seem like simpler times, partly because they represent an authenticity that seems to have been lost in modern life—but mostly, I suspect, just because they taste too good to give up, even when you can afford something ‘fancier’.
This dish from my grandfather Lorenzo’s native Puglia
epitomizes, for me at least, the whole cucina povera
concept. It is made from two ingredients—dried fava beans and wild chicory—that were and still are dirt cheap. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, wild chicory, or cicoria selvatica
, can be found growing in open fields in Italy. I can scarcely think of two more unpretentious ingredients and yet, put them together and you get a unique taste experience. It’s a dish that shows how, with a little imagination, simplicity can be sublime.Begin by soaking your fava beans. You can do this one of two ways: either leave them overnight with cold water to cover or boil them briefly (for, say, 5 minutes) and remove them immediately from the heat and let them sit, covered, for about an hour. Unlike other beans, favas need to be peeled, as they skin, while not entirely inedible, does not make for good eating. This is not difficult—once soaked the skins should slide off fairly easily, leaving a pod of two loosely attached halves—but it does require some patience, so sit down with your bowl of favas and listen to some music while you peel.
Put your peeled favas in a pot large enough to contain them and enough water to cover by a couple of centimeters (about an inch). Season well with salt and pepper and, if you like (although this is not original) a garlic clove or two, and/or a small onion. Simmer about an hour or more, until the favas have become very tender. Stir frequently and top up with more water as needed to prevent the beans from drying out and scorching, but you do want to water to reduce, so that by the time the favas are tender, the water will mostly have evaporated.
When the beans are tender, begin to mash them with the side of your wooden spoon, until the beans have formed a kind of ‘cream’. Add a good filo d’olio to enrich the beans. Continue simmering, stirring all the time, until the beans have formed a purée thick enough that you can form a little ‘canal’ with a wooden spoon like so:
Taste and, if necessary, adjust for seasoning. Keep warm until you are ready to serve.Meanwhile, take a good head of chicory (if you can find wild chicory, so much the better) or another bitter green—dandelion greens also work well—and boil them in well salted water until tender. Trim off the root but do not cut the greens into pieces; the leaves should remain whole (see Notes below).
Now you are ready to serve. Place your fava bean purée in the bottom of a soup plate, forming a little well in the middle, then using some tongs, grab some of the boiled greens, let them drain rather well (but not completely) and place them in the center of the plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then drizzle with a generous amount of the best, fruitiest olive oil you can find. Serve immediately.
NOTES: The beauty of this dish lies in the contrast of the bitterness of the greens with the smooth, nuttiness of the beans. The best way to eat it, then, is to take a bit of the greens with your fork, twirling the leaves as you would strands of spaghetti in the purée, which will form a kind of ‘sauce’ for the greens. Eaten this way, you can make sure you get a bit of greens and a bit of bean in each bite.
There are a few variations
on this dish, mostly aimed at the making the dish more refined or savory. As mentioned above, one common variation is to add some aromatics to cook along with the fava beans, usually garlic and/or onion, but also carrot and celery, fresh herbs, etc. Some recipes call for a bit of tomato and/or potato. Some folks like to add a little peperoncino
for heat, either by adding some to the beans or by dressing the final product with oil infused with chili at the end. Some recipes call for dressing the chicory separately from the favas with garlic and oil, a bit like making them in padella
. And then some recipes will have you pass the puree through a sieve or food mill to make it perfectly smooth. But would a peasant do that? I don’t think so. And there are different ways to serve the dish. Rather than placing the chicory on top of the fava bean puree, it is also very common to place them side by sides on the dish.
In the US, dried fava beans can be a bit hard to find, but if you have access to a Latin market (or a supermarket with Latin products) the Goya brand carries them. And, of course, Italian markets catering to immigrant Italian-Americans—not the upscale ones, which tend to neglect southern Italian products—should have them also.You can cut down the cooking time for the fava beans by using a pressure cooker. It should take about 15 minutes once it gets up to pressure. De-pressurize immediately. Since there is less evaporation than using a conventional pot, you may need to drain the beans and do the final simmering in another pot.
For this dish, you really want good, fruity, extra virgin olive oil to given this dish the proper character. If you use any other kind of oil, even the lighter olive oils, will not do. And, of course, if you can find olive oil from Puglia, so much the better! The Cento and Alessi brands both sell Apulian olive oil.