serves: 6 servings
Aquacotta literally means "cooked water," a traditional term for a soup of just a few ingredients cooked in boiling water. But this pale name in no way reflects the savor and satisfaction of this vegetable soup. It has great depth of flavor and, when served Alma's way with a poached egg and country bread in the bowl, it is a complete meal. In country fashion, Alma cracks a raw egg right into each portion of hot soup and inverts another bowl on top, as a cover. You have to wait (mouth watering) for a minute or two before removing the top bowl, to find a beautifully cooked egg. Here, I transfer the soup to a skillet and poach the eggs over low heat, to be sure they have cooked thoroughly. Since this soup is so quick, inexpensive, and nourishing, local women would make it often, especially when extra farmhands came to help to harvest the grapes and olives and to work the land.
2 pounds Swiss chard
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery , trimmed, peeled and cut in chunks
⅓ cup Italian parsley
8 fresh basil leaves
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon peperoncino
1 tablespoon tomato paste
9 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
eggs, (1 for each serving of soup)
day-old country bread, (1/2 a slice)
pecorino, freshly grated
Wash and drain the chard and tear out the long stems from the leafy parts. Stack the leaves and slice crosswise into 1-inch strips. Cut off the tough base of each stem and discard. Chop the trimmed stems into 1/2-inch pieces.
Using a food processor, mince the onion, celery, parsley, and basil into a fine textured paste (pestata). Heat the oil in the saucepan over medium heat, scrape in the pestata and stir it all around the pan as it starts to steam and sizzle. Sprinkle in the peperoncino and cook, stirring, until the pestata has dried and starts to stick, 4 minutes or so. Drop in the tomato paste, and stir to toast it for a minute.
Pour in the water, raise the heat to high, and stir up all the cooked seasonings, while adding 2 teaspoons of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Bring the water to the boil and dump in all of the cut chard leaves and chopped stems. Return to the boil, cover partially and cook at a steady simmer for about 40 minutes, until the chard is very tender and the broth is quite flavorful. Turn off the heat until you're ready to serve.
For each portion, ladle about 1 1/3 cups of soup into the skillet. Heat to a simmer; crack and carefully slip into the soup one egg for each serving. Turn the heat down very low, cover the skillet tightly, and poach the eggs for 2 minutes or longer. Put a bread slice or croutons in each warm soup bowl, and when the eggs are done as you like them, lift them out, one at a time, with a slotted spoon or spatula, taking some cooked greens too. Lay the egg and greens on the bread and ladle in hot broth to cover. Sprinkle pecorino over the egg and broth, and serve immediately, passing more cheese at the table.