I won’t even pretend I’m normal, whatever that means. I’m the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and says to himself “I’d love a shepherd’s pie tonight”, and then spends the rest of the day imagining cooking and savouring it, evoking the aromas, picturing the spoon breaking through the crispy potato crust, then watching the rich gravy slowly ooze out to invade the plate like a dark, viscous sea (told you I wasn’t normal). Most people reserve this kind of pre-event fantasizing (pregustare as the Italians say – trust them to have a word for it) for their love lives, whereas I tend to indulge in it for a wider range of carnal pleasures. As an ex-girlfriend once said, “most men only think about sex, but half of your brain is taken up by thoughts of food”. I’ve never quite understood whether she was trying to pay me a compliment or not. Either way, she was right.
Anyway, to get to the point, today’s recipe was the result of one such early morning desire. It was a chilly day, just for a change – winter seems to have taken an unprecedented liking to Sicily this year – and I wanted something warming and filling. I also needed a recipe that could use up the big bunch of wild fennel I had in the fridge. To be honest, the addition of fennel to today’s dish is only an optional, which you’re more likely to find included in the mix the closer you get to Palermo, but for me it’s almost the whole point. Here in Messina, macco usually comes pure and simple, without tomatoes usually, and definitely fennel-less. The pasta is also optional, for that matter. But, much as I love unaldulterated macco with a nice drizzle of good olive oil, I strongly recommend the all-the-bells-and-whistles version.
Sorry, I’ve just realised that I haven’t actually told you exactly what we’re dealing with, have I? Well, macco is basically a thick, creamy soup of fava beans which have had their outer skins removed. Here, these beans are used almost exclusively for this recipe, which is why they’re known locally as fave da macco, but in England they trade under the name of split dried fava beans, and a quick look on the net convinced me they’re easy enough to find. You might have more difficulty sourcing wild fennel, admittedly, but if you can’t, just look on the bright side – it’s only an optional. You could add a teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds instead, which at least will give you a similar aniseedy flavour.
This is best when lukewarm, by the way, so leave it in the bowl to cool for five or ten minutes if you can resist…
- 500g split dried fava beans, soaked overnight or for 8-10 hours
- Bunch of wild fennel, leaves stripped from the stems and chopped
- 4 ripe medium tomatoes or 400g smaller tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped
- 1 small onion, halved and sliced finely, lengthways
- 200g pasta (something small like ditalini, or broken-up spaghetti)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
- Dried chilli flakes to taste (optional)
- Put the fava beans into a large saucepan with 2 litres of cold water. Cover and bring to the boil. Add the fennel leaves, lower the temperature and cook, covered for about two hours. Every now and then stir and bash (ammaccare in Italian, which is where macco comes from) the beans with a wooden spoon.
- In a separate pan, gently fry the onions in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomatoes and cook for two minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and pasta to the macco, season well and cook until the pasta is ready. It will probably take a bit longer than the cooking time specified on the packet, since it will be cooking in dense fava bean purée rather than water. It may even take twice as long. All I can say is, take this into account, and every now and again check on its progress.
- Mix well and ladle into bowls. Leave to rest for 5-10 minutes. Drizzle over some olive oil and grind over some pepper or chilli. Dig in.