I kept staring at that patch of chard in the garden. It's wild San Francisco chard, grown from starters from Logan's Gardens, which sells at the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers markets. The leaves are so tender I'd been eating them simply sautéed in a little olive oil with a smashed garlic clove and, at the end, a squeeze of lemon.
But last weekend, thumbing through the charming little cookbook "Zuppe: Soups From the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome" by Mona Talbott, I found a recipe for potato and wild chard soup. It reminded me of soups I'd fortified myself with in Rome many winters ago.
Cooking from the garden, even between seasons, has its pleasures even if the palette of ingredients is more limited. I love those dishes focused on just one or two flavors.
I remember arriving at my friend Chiara's house near Campo dei Fiori, bundled in a thrift-store Harris tweed coat. As I unwound my muffler on that chill, windy day, Chiara set out two soup bowls. Each had a thick slab of grilled bread at the bottom. Then she broke an egg into each bowl and ladled over a steaming lentil soup, finishing the whole thing off with a quick swirl of green-gold olive oil.
At that moment, the soup was heaven. Each bite was a little different, filling and delicious. The lentils were small and stone-colored, the famous lentils of Castelluccio in Umbria grown at 4,500 feet above sea level. Sometimes Chiara cut coins of wild boar sausage into the zuppa, sometimes not.
We had cheese and bread after, sometimes fruit. But I always left her house feeling happy and nourished.
In her recipe, Talbott, who is a Chez Panisse alum and was founding executive chef of the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome, suggests serving the soup over a slice of toasted bread or with a poached egg.
The ingredients couldn't be plainer: just diced potato, chard stems and leaves, salt and pepper, and a minced garlic clove. No stock. No pancetta. No bay leaf. Just cold water.
I decided to make it. As the potatoes and chopped chard stems simmered in water with a little salt, I kept dipping my spoon in, to taste, and with dinner guests about to arrive, frankly, I was worried. The "broth" tasted very like salted water.
In the end, though, after I added masses of chard leaves and garnished the soup with a thread of peppery new olive oil and a grating of Parmesan, each spoonful tasted bright and true — straight from the garden.