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Fanesca Fish and Grain Soup

By Cheryl Forberg
Image of quinoa grains
A warm welcome for chill-chasing soups.

A frosty morning is Mother Nature's cry for hearty fare that warms us from the inside out. A steaming bowl of robust soup is a delicious answer. Cream, roux, or pureed vegetables are often used to make a rich and velvety base for bisque or chowder. Another great way to fortify and thicken a tasty broth is a handful of savory whole grains. From Tuscany to Oaxaca, cooks the world over have guarded this secret for centuries. Not only do grains deliver thickening power – they add texture and distinctive nuances that pump up the flavor.

No matter what the season, there is always a versatile array of whole grains from which to choose. High in protein, complex carbs and fiber, they're also rich in minerals. And their antioxidant activity is on par with many fruits, and exceeds most vegetables. Here are a few delicious ways to spike your whole grain intake while enjoying the lingering fullness of a steaming bowl of soup.

In Ecuador, Fanesca is an ancient soup recipe steeped in religious tradition. As Catholicism is the predominant religious force here, it permeates most holiday traditions and customs, including the cuisine. Each year, Semana Santa is the Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday. This sacred time coincides with the Spring Equinox and regional grain harvesting. Fanesca, the celebratory chowder of Holy Week, is thickened with grains and beans or legumes. Though there are many variations, some family recipes honor a legend to include 12 different grains, one for each of the Apostles.

Other Fanesca ingredients include peanuts, usually ground. Native to South America, peanuts are an excellent source of protein, and are often added to their soups and stews. In fact, Ecuador may have more varieties of peanuts than any other country in the world. Coconut milk and yucca are other typical ingredients, along with plantains, which are often used as a garnish. Thin slices of salt cod crown the soup, to symbolize abstinence from meat during this Lenten period. As East Indian kitchens have their own distinctive curry blends, and Mexican families their prized molè recipes, so do Ecuadorian families prepare their Fanesca differently. Legends of the soup's content and origin vary widely. The grains may include beans, corn, lentils and/or rice. No matter which combination, Fanesca is an anticipated and heartwarming tradition each Good Friday.

Though perfect on a blustery day, chill-chasing soup can be savored year-round. Distinctive in its own way, Fanesca is hearty enough to stand alone as a main course. Just add a crunchy salad, whole-grain rolls and – let it snow!

Fanesca (Fish and Grain Soup)
This recipe is very forgiving to substitutions. Though they're not authentic Ecuadorian substitutions, you may replace peanut butter with almond butter, squash with sweet potato, or lima beans with edamame. Leftovers freeze well.

Yields: Six Main course (two-cup) servings or 12 one-cup servings

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 large Onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons Chopped Garlic
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh Oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon Ground Cumin
1 Bay Leaf
3 cups Fat Free Reduced Sodium Chicken Broth (or Vegetable Broth)
1 cup Light Coconut Milk
½ cup Dry Uncooked Lentils, rinsed
¼ cup Uncooked Quinoa or Bulgur or Brown Basmati Rice, rinsed
1 cup Raw Winter Squash or Pumpkin, cut in ½ inch cubes
1 cup Baby Limas (Butter Beans)
1½ cups cooked Beans (Pinto, Navy or Kidney Beans)
2 Tablespoons Natural Peanut Butter
1 pound Fresh Firm White Fish, such as Halibut, cut in ½ inch cubes

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh Cilantro

In a 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add onion and sauté until soft and lightly browned. Add garlic and seasonings; sauté for one minute longer. Do not brown garlic.

Add broth and coconut milk; bring to boil. Add rice and lentils and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. Add squash and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add lima beans and corn. Simmer 3 minutes longer. Stir in cooked beans. Whisk in peanut butter. Add fish and simmer for 2 minutes longer or until just cooked through and rice and vegetables are tender. Serve immediately, garnished with cilantro. Makes about 10 cups.
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