Fanesca is a traditional Ecuadorian soup eaten during the Cuaresma period (Lent) and Semana Santa (Holy Week/Easter). The Fanesca is made with 12 legume/vegetable ingredients, and each Ecuadorian family has their own way of making it. These 12 ingredients are grains grown in Ecuador and include: choclo tierno (corn), habas (lima beans), frijoles rojos (red kidney beans), frijoles blancos (white beans), alverjitas (green peas), chochos (lupini beans), lentejas (lentils), mote (hominy), maní (peanuts), mellocos (a small Ecuadorian potato), zapallo and zambo (varieties of squashes, like pumpkin, yellow squash, butternut squash, etc.). Additionally, this soup contains bacalao (salted cod), cooked rice and has a milk base.
The specific origins of the Fanesca are not clear, although it is said that it originated during Colonial times. The 12 legume/vegetable ingredients symbolize the 12 Apostles, although it is also said they symbolize The 12 Tribes of Israel, while the fish represents Our Savior Jesus Christ. Recall that during this time of the year, devout Catholic Christians don’t eat red meat, hence the use of fish in this soup. Also, during Lent it is common for many people to fast, so when Fanesca time comes around, eating a big, hearty soup is welcomed.
Back in Ecuador, I remember preparing the Fanesca was always a big deal, not only because of what the soup represented, but because it is SO.TIME.CONSUMING. Families spent days making this soup, because each bean had to be soaked and cooked on its own, and the same goes for the squashes. In Guayaquil, finding bacalao normally was not a big deal and you could get the fish quite fresh, but it still needed to be soaked and cooked. And with 12 ingredients plus the fish, you can only imagine how much soup you ended up with, which is why eating Fanesca is a family affair.
Growing up, my family didn’t make Fanesca every year. Most of the time we bought it from a restaurant, or from la comadre (the “close friend”), whom we knew would be making large Fanesca batches in an effort to earn a few Sucres. I didn’t eat Fanesca all the time because I found that the bacalao mixed in with all the rest of the beans gave the soup a weird flavor. Hard-core Fanesca lovers enjoy the fish-infused milk used as a base for this soup, since traditionally the bacalao is cooked in milk for about 15 minutes. I decided not to cook the fish in the milk for my Fanesca. Instead, I cooked my 24-hour soaked salted cod in water with lemon juice for 15 minutes, removed the fish, and DISCARDED the water.
Don’t be discouraged by the Fanesca-making process! The beauty of making Fanesca nowadays is the availability of canned beans. It makes life so much easier! Since the traditional Fanesca requires to use the cooked beans with its liquid to make the soup, I used the canned beans with their liquid to make this soup. However, I decided not to use the liquids of the corn and the hominy because a) these are more watery relative to the other beans and we want a thick consistency, and b) my dutch oven was about to overflow.
I did have to soak and cook a few of the legumes, namely the lentils, the lima beans, and the pinto beans. The two latter ones were because I had some dried beans in my pantry – no reason to spend money when I have these already. However, you can easily find canned lima beans, along with the rest of the other beans. Should you use dry lima beans, don’t forget to soak them overnight and remove their thick skin which should be relatively easy once they are soaked. The chochos are normally sold in a brine, which we won’t use in the soup. Recall that the chochos have a thick skin, which needs to be removed. Since the mellocos are not available here (I’ve never seen them in the U.S.), I skipped those. I also replaced green peas for garbanzo beans. You know what happened when I served peas in my household. A final note on the beans: don’t beat yourself if you can’t find the specific beans. For instance, for the white beans I used cannellini beans, but feel free to use navy beans, great northern beans, or others. If you like peas, go ahead and use the peas. Chances are you have the majority of these in your pantry already.
The Fanesca is generally served with moló – mashed potatoes Ecuadorian style, fried sweet plantains and masitas, which are deep fried little empanadas. It is garnished with chopped cilantro, slices of hard-boiled eggs or slices of avocado. Now, let’s go on and enjoy this Fanesca, shall we?
Fanesca prep work:
Soak the salted cod in water for 24 hours, changing the water 3-4 times in between. Store in the fridge until ready to use. After the soaking period is done, discard the water.
Cook the now softer cod in plenty water with the juice of 1 lemon. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the codfish from the water and set aside, discarding the water.
If using dried beans, such as lentils, soak them for a few hours, but preferably overnight. Cook the beans with enough water to cover them. Season the water with salt. Set aside the cooked beans, reserving its liquid, which won’t be too much.
Cook the squashes in plenty water until soft; we will need 2 cups of each of the squashes. I used calabaza (pumpkin) and yellow squash which I peeled and seeded. You can use butternut squash, kabocha or acorn squash. There is no need to season this water. Once cooked, chop the squashes in smaller pieces and set aside, reserving the liquids as well.
In a small sauce pan, bring 3 cups of lightly salted water to a boil. Add 1 cup of long grain white rice, and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the rice until it is well done and mushy, and the water has cooked down.
Heat a small skillet on medium heat and toast 1/4 cup of lightly salted peanuts. Toast for a few minutes until you see the peanuts turning slightly brown in color and bead of oil forming on the surface of the peanuts. Remove from the heat.
Blend the peanuts with 2 cups of milk – I used skim milk. Set the mixture aside.
Preparing the Fanesca:
In a large dutch oven, heat up some oil (vegetable or olive), and make a refrito with 1 cup of chopped yellow onions, 3 minced garlic cloves, and 3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro.
Season the refrito with a generous pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper and 1 teaspoon of ground cumin. Stir to combine.
Then add about 1/4 teaspoon of achiote powder and sautee on medium heat for about 5 minutes.
Add the peanut/milk mixture to the refrito, stir and cook for 5 more minutes.
Add the mushy rice to the dutch over, and stir to incorporate the ingredients. With the spoon, mash down the rice as well, and bring to a rolling boil (bubbles are forming). Cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the diced squashes to the pot, followed by 1 cup of each of the liquids – so 1 cup of the pumpkin cooking liquid and 1 cup of the yellow squash liquid.
Stir and with the spoon, mash the squashes to thicken the soup.
Now it is time to add the beans. Since we are mostly using canned beans, this process is fairly easy. I used 1 can of each of the different variety of beans. For the dried beans I had cooked separately, I measured a can-worth of the pinto beans and the lima beans.
I didn’t have a particular order in mind when I added them to the pot. I added the following with their liquids: lentils, garbanzo beans, cannellini beans, pinto beans (instead of red kidney beans), and the lima beans. Then I added the lupini beans, peeled and without the brine.
Then I added the corn and the hominy without the liquids.
Stir to combine all the ingredients. Taste the soup and adjust for seasoning if necessary. I added another generous pinch of salt, more ground pepper and cumin. Bring the soup to a boil, and then lower the head to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, heat some oil in a frying pan. Pan fry the pieces of cod on both sides, until slightly golden. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To plate the soup, place a piece of the cod fish in a soup bowl, and ladle a couple of spoonfuls of the Fanesca over it to get this:
Garnish with chopped cilantro, slices of hard-boiled eggs and/or slices of avocado. Serve with slices of fried sweet plantain and/or masitas fritas. Curious how to make masitas? Masitas are basically our lovely empanadas de viento, but smaller. Follow the same recipe, but instead make discs of 3 cm. in diameter. Have a wonderful Easter!
- 1 lb. salted cod, soaked for 24 hours+ to remove salt, drained, cut into smaller pieces
- The juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup yellow onion, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp. chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup peanuts, toasted and blended in 2 cups of milk
- 1 cup dry rice cooked in 3 cups of water (the rice needs to be soggy and tender)
- 2 cups pumpkin (calabaza/zapallo), cooked and cubed (reserve the water)
- 2 cups yellow squash, cooked and cubed (reserve the water)
- 1 can (14-16oz. or 2 cups) lima beans with liquid
- 1 cup (8 oz.) lupini beans (chochos), drained and peeled, brine discarded
- 1 cup dry lentils cooked in 2 cups water and seasoned with salt (reserve the water)
- 1 can (14-16oz. or 2 cups) red kidney beans or pinto beans with liquid
- 1 can (14-16oz. or 2 cups) cannellini beans with liquid
- 1 can (14-16oz. or 2 cups) garbanzo beans with liquid
- 1 can (14-16oz or 2 cups) hominy, drained
- 1 can (14-16oz. or 2 cups) sweet corn, drained
- Salt, ground pepper and ground cumin to taste
- Ground achiote (annato powder)
- Slices of hard-boiled eggs
- Chopped cilantro
- Masitas (deep fried dough)
- Fried sweet plantains
- Avocado slices
- Cook the cod fish in abundant water plus the juice of 1 lemon. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the fish from the water, and discard the water.
- In a large dutch oven or stew pot, make a refrito by heating some oil, and adding the onion, garlic, cilantro, achiote powder, and seasoning with salt, pepper and cumin. Sautee on medium heat for about 5 minutes.
- Add the toasted peanut/milk puree to the refrito, and sautee for 5 minutes.
- Add the soggy, tender rice to the refrito mixture. Stir and mash the rice with the ladle to thicken the soup. Sautee for 5 additional minutes.
- Add the cooked pumpkin, yellow squash, plus 1 cup of each of the liquids. Mash the squashes with the ladle to thicken the soup.
- Add all the beans with the liquid, plus the corn and hominy, drained.
- Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring every so often so the soup doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot.
- The Fanesca soup is thick and hearty, but if you notice it is drying too fast, or prefer a lighter soup, add more milk, about 1-2 cups, depending on your preference.
- Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat some oil and lightly sautee the cod fish pieces on all sides.
- Taste the fanesca for seasoning, and adjust the flavor by adding more salt, pepper and cumin if necessary.
- To serve: in a bowl, place a few pieces (depending on your preference) of the sauteed cod. Ladle some fanesca over it.
- Garnish the soup with additional chopped cilantro, slices of hard-boiled eggs, or slices of avocado. Serve with fried sweet plantains and masitas (deep fried empanadas - see the recipe for empanadas de viento).