The days leading up to Easter in Ecuador has a very exciting vibe. We were just in Quito, and throughout that big city and here in Cuenca, all the mercados are stocked with salt cod, and restaurants have put out special signs advertising the arrival of fanesca!
Fanesca is the traditional Ecuadorian soup served during Holy Week throughout the country. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you that Cuenca serves the best fanesca in Ecuador.
Last year my husband and I enjoyed the fanesca cooking tour through TerraDiversa travel agency. I’ve taken classes with professional chefs in New York City and never have I had more fun as a student, or learned more about the local culture and ingredients.
First we shopped for the many ingredients, in the 10 de Agosto mercado, on Calle Larga y General Torres. Our tour took us to La Warmi restaurant, just a few blocks away on Calle Hermano Miguel where we prepared the soup.
For those who want to sign up for this year’s TerraDiversa fanesca tour, click here.
Fanesca is a rich soup made from zapallo, a pumpkin-like squash. The twelve different kinds of beans and grains including chochos, habas, peas, lentils, and corn are said to represent the 12 apostles. Bacalao (salted cod) is soaked in milk before joining the other ingredients, and depending on whose recipe you follow, the soup is often topped with avocado, empanadas, fried plantain or even boiled eggs. Unlike most traditional Ecuadorian menus, this meal contains no red meat, due to the prohibition during Holy Week.
ElTiempo.com reports that traditionally, each ingredient is cooked separately, and it’s said that the fish symbolizes Christ and the way his message reaches the Christian community.
Besides the Christian legends and traditions associated with the Catholic Easter, the Inca and the Cañari people take part in celebrating the March equinox, symbolizing the beginning of a new life cycle in spring.
Let’s Go Shopping
On Fridays, the chaos at 10 de Agosto mercado is noticeably stronger as the day goes on, so arriving early is a very good idea. On the ground floor, towards the front (the Calle Larga entrance) you’ll find vegetables, including plantains, red and green onions, garlic, different types of squash (including zapallo pumpkin), and avocado. Salted cod is stacked throughout the market. When you enter the market at the Calle Larga entrance, on the left you’ll find dried foods, including grains and legumes, lentils, quinoa, and the pepa de sambo, or squash seeds. On the side streets surrounding the market are small storefronts and sidewalk vendors, selling ingredients too.
Go up the escalera mecánica to the second floor, for fresh herbs and vegetables, including fresh choclo (corn, already peeled and cooked), fava beans (habas) and the spiny green vegetable called achocha. Achocha is an ancient Inca food crop, and is related to squash and cucumber. The seeded pods are cooked in the soup, and it’s thought to be effective in lowering cholesterol.
At restaurant La Warmi we spent a fun four hours in the kitchen with Chef Catalina Abad, chopping, peeling, stirring and tasting, and all the while learning about the preparation methods and ingredients. Our participation was just the final, fun part of the preparation — most ingredients’ preparations had begun days before. The dry salt cod must be soaked in milk over two or three days before cooking; Chef Abad includes both rice and quinoa in her recipe, which she had pre-soaked and drained; she’d freshly harvested, washed, and dried squash seeds, leaving us the fun of toasting them to be served as a garnish.
This was cooking from the heart — the soup was a symbol of the warmth and generosity of the people of Cuenca. Fanesca is not just the sum of the ingredients — fanesca represents traditions and family of Ecuador.
Fanesca: A Lighter Version, o de calorías reducidas.
With respect for tradition, and for those who love to enjoy new flavors and traditions and at the same time want to keep their calories and ingredients as healthful as possible, I’ve made some suggested modifications.
This soup has some serious calories, mainly from the addition of cream and/or heavy cream, full-fat cheese, lots of added oil and butter, and from the garnishes that traditionally are added to serve, some deep-fried. I enjoyed the soup, but man! It’s so heavy that I thought, hmmm…what if we had used equally delicious (but lower fat) ingredients?
Friends and family, clients and patients who know me, and readers of my books and my Friday CuencaHighLife.com column will understand that my personal practice is to “Make Weight Control Second Nature.” I make my ‘usual diet’ one that will help me maintain a healthy weight, naturally.
I enjoy traditional dishes and desserts, and maintain my weight by using smart substitutions wherever I can. Most people won’t undertake this Herculean task of preparing fanesca, but maybe you’ll be able to use the strategies to modify your own recipes. Maintain the flavor while at the same time lose some of the excessive calories.
Below is the recipe and directions. The italics are mine, and describe some alternative ingredients and recipe modifications.
1 lb. boneless salt cod (preferably white)
2 cups shelled fava beans, blanched and peeled: buy fresh at the mercado: click here for a cooking video demonstration).
2 cups cooked corn kernels, drained: fresh is best, and you can pick up pre-cleaned and cooked corn at the mercado. You might find frozen sweet corn in Supermaxi too.
One 15-oz can Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed, or 11⁄2 cups frozen baby lima beans, cooked and drained: lima beans are not typically found in Cuenca, but you can substitute any red beans, navy beans, cannellini, pinto or any white bean will work: Use dried beans instead of canned too. More about dried bean varieties and cooking here.
1 cup fresh or frozen peas, cooked in water to cover until tender and drained: arvejas, chícharos.
1 1⁄2 cups bottled lupini beans, peeled: lupini beans are known as ‘chochos’: see my column about where to buy and how to cook here. They must be soaked and rinsed very well before eating. Buy them precooked and prepared in the mercado or Supermaxi.
1 head garlic, unpeeled: ajo — and note that the recipe calls for a head of garlic, not just a clove.
2 cups shredded zucchini or zambo (winter melon)
2 cups peeled, seeded and cubed (1 inch) calabaza or other winter squash: zapallo is a type of pumpkin squash that’s a deep orange color and it’s delicious! They sell it peeled and cubed both in the mercado and at Supermaxi.
2 cups shredded cabbage: col.
1⁄2 cup long-grain rice: for more nutrition and texture, try a mix of different rice, such as arroz integral (brown rice), or barley (cebada), and quinoa. El Tiempo’s recipe includes lentejas (lentils).
1 1⁄2 cups water
2 tablespoons canola oil: I prefer virgin or extra virgin olive oil for its flavor, but organic canola oil works too.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter: Although fat is fat, in terms of calories, I typically skip the butter and the saturated fat and use extra virgin olive oil in its place.
1⁄2 teaspoon ground annatto or sweet paprika: achiote paste or ground achiote gives a mild sweet flavor and a beautiful color. Buy in the mercado, or Supermaxi, or any of the vendors that sell spices around the mercado. Click here for more info.
1 cup finely chopped scallions (white part only): find in 10 de Agosto mercado, upstairs, cebolletas: onion lovers can add a cup of cebolla blanca y roja, white and red onions, chopped.
2 cups finely chopped leeks (white part only), washed well: puerros: La Warmi also includes achoccha in their recipe: this is the spiny (very soft spines and edible) cucumber-like vegetable. More about cooking and growing achoccha here.
1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin: comino.
1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano: oregano.
2 tsp. salt: sal.
1 tsp. white pepper: pimienta blanco (or negro – black pepper).
1⁄2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts: mani tostado.
5 cups milk, or more if needed: whole milk is typical, and to lower calories and fat, leche descrimada or semi descrimada (nonfat or low fat milk) is fine.
4 oz. cream cheese: if you don’t find queso crema, use fresh queso blanco or fresh ricotta for a lower-fat alternative.
1 cup whipping cream: Here’s the BIG substitution: In all recipes, whipping, or heavy cream is a significant source of saturated fat and calories. To keep the creaminess, without all the fat and calories, try substituting for all or some of the cream. Evaporated milk (leche evaporada) has 315 calories and 16 grams of fat per 8-oz., compared to heavy whipping cream’s 820 calories and 88 grams of fat, for the same amount. For a lower fat/vegetarian substitute, blend fresh tofu with unsweetened soy or almond milk until smooth. Yogurt lovers will find that thick greek yogurt will work well. Pureed potatoes or turnips impart ‘creaminess’ without added fat/cream. Coconut milk (not coconut water or coconut drink) is high in saturated fat, but the research points toward a better profile in this vegan (not animal) saturated fat. Coconut milk is naturally creamy, cholesterol-free, and contains about 300 calories and 30 grams of fat less than the same amount of whipping cream.
1⁄4 cup (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter (optional), softened: it’s optional, and you can leave it out.
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and sliced
1 ripe (yellow) plantain, peeled, sliced 1⁄4 inch thick, and fried in hot canola oil until golden on both sides: deep-fried foods are high in calories and fat, and baked plantains are so delicious: just slice ripe plantains ¼ inch thick, place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, bake at 400 degrees F/205 degrees C for 10 minutes, flip over, and continue to bake until done.
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips, or 4 hot red peppers, seeded, cut into thin strips, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds, and drained
Mini cheese empanadas or dough fritters: Other more healthy and lower-fat and calorie garnishes include roasted corn nuts (maíz tostado), sunflower seeds (pipas), and popcorn (canguil).
Fresh parsley sprigs: perejil, and cilantro.
Soak the salt cod in water to cover overnight, changing the water a couple of times.
Drain, cut into bite-size pieces and set aside.
Prepare the fava beans, corn, Great Northern beans, peas, and 1 cup of the lupini beans (for the lupini beans (chocho): I advise buying them fully cooked and peeled. Learn more here). Place in a large mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. 205 degrees C.
Roast the garlic in a baking dish until the cloves are soft, about 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven, let cool, and squeeze out the garlic; it should be like a paste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Steam the zucchini until tender, about 5 minutes. Steam the calabaza until soft, about 20 minutes. Steam the cabbage until tender, about 20 minutes. Place the zucchini, squash and cabbage in a food processor and process until smooth.
Transfer to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
In a small saucepan, combine the rice and water and cook over low heat until most of the water has been absorbed, 25 to 30 minutes. If you’re using quinoa along with white rice, or by itself, rinse well, then cook as directed. Brown rice and barley: rinse well, cook one cup of rice/barley to 1 ½ – 2 cups of water.
Mash with a fork, transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
In a large, heavy casserole, heat the oil, butter and annatto together over medium heat until the butter has melted. Just use olive oil if you prefer to avoid butter.
Add the cod and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the scallions, leeks, roasted garlic, cumin, oregano, salt and white pepper to the casserole and cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes. Do not let brown.
Transfer to a blender and add the remaining 1⁄2 cup lupini beans, the peanuts and a little of the milk. Process until smooth.
Return to the casserole, add the cod and remaining milk, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the squash and cabbage, rice, and bean mixture and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the casserole.
Cut the cream cheese into small cubes and add, stirring until it melts. Add the cream and heat through. Here you can skip the cream and add your substitute. If you prefer, boil or steam peeled potatoes. Try the tiny fingerling melloco potatoes: boil a cup of scrubbed and diced melloco until soft (check for doneness at about 10-15 minutes), then puree in your blender with some low or nonfat milk until it has the consistency of cream.
Fanesca should have the consistency of a thick soup; if it is too thick, add a little more milk. Taste for salt and stir in the butter, if using. Why add more fat? I like to taste the flavor of the ingredients, and butter just overwhelms everything.
Serve hot in soup plates, garnished with the eggs, plantain, bell pepper, mini empanadas, fritters and parsley.
NOTE: You may serve the cod separately as a side dish. Place the cod pieces in boiling water, cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside until ready to serve. Water is never used in the classic fanesca, just milk.
I used CalorieKing.com to access their useful nutrient comparison tool. Put in your favorite rich recipe, make some strategic substitutions, and see how the calories and fat grams change, and maybe even find some fiber from alternate ingredients. Try it here!
CuencaHighLife.com. Chochos — The Super Bean! https://www.cuencahighlife.com/chochos-super-bean/
ElTiempo.com. La fanesca, el alimento de Semana Santa. http://www.eltiempo.com.ec/noticias/cuenca/2/256735/la-fanesca-el-alimento-de-semana-santa
The Huffington Post. How to peel and eat fava beans. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/17/peeling-fava-beans_n_1428107.html
NPR.org. The Salt. Ecuador’s Fanesca is a Lenten Soup Flavored With Centuries of Tradition. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/03/02/517969323/ecuadors-fanesca-is-a-lenten-soup-flavored-with-centuries-of-tradition
TerraDiversa.com. Cooking Fanesca in Cuenca. http://www.terradiversa.com/tour/cooking-fanesca-in-cuenca/