This story originally appeared on TASTE.
It only took a Swiss chard and cilantro bread soup to remind me that memory is wanting, a daisy chain of recollections in a broken, wayward sequence.
I sometimes wander cookbooks and the Internet when I am unsure what I want to cook. Or eat. Recently my fingers strolled across The New Portuguese Kitchen. I have paged through the book a few times, always intrigued. The recipes seem at once manageable and unexpected. Food that speaks a language I know, in a dialect I have never heard. Plus, many Portuguese have a fondness for bacalao, and I like salt cod plenty myself. But this was not a salt cod day.
I wanted to cook something that was quick, with ingredients I had around. Ooh! There it was: a cilantro bread soup with poached eggs, açorda alentejana as the dish is called in Portugal. I started plotting the steps, then—wham!—my mind scurried in a fresh direction. A flash of intense green. Melancholy. Fat white beans. Fog. Endless fog, with splotches of sun.
I had eaten this dish before. But I have never been to Portugal, I reminded myself. Where, when, how? The memory flared into blunt relief: San Francisco. I ate this soup constantly for a few years.
It was the mid-2000s, and I was in a grim place. My first true relationship had ended. I knew he and I together was wrong, but it was my first heartbreak and the ache bombinated. I then ricocheted into an even unhealthier relationship. The kind you know is ill-advised. The kind you need because being needed is all that matters.
I lived around the corner from Bar Tartine when it opened. This was the offshoot of the famed Mission bakery, where the coconut cream tarts are legendary and the country bread is peerless. In 2006 at Bar Tartine, bread was the entry point for many of chef Jason Fox’s dishes. Like so much else during those years, I could remember his bread soup in fragments. I was doing a lot of drugs at night, cocaine mostly, and the resultant days were spent with a quavering brain and an exhausted body. Those nights deadened the pain of lost love and the longstanding ideas I had of my minimal worth as a gay man. New friendships were forged, too. Bar Tartine, with its warm staff who became like kin, tall dining counter where I practically had a stool of my own, and Fox’s smart, accessible food, like this bread soup, was a balm. The restaurant was an implacable oak in the middle of a tornado. I recalled the soup’s brightness. I guessed cilantro did that. I remember bread, too, of course. And an egg. The rest of the dish? No idea. Damn memory.
I texted Fox and told him I was doing a story about the soup and wanted the recipe. We talked on the phone, and I could tell it was strange for him to finger a recipe from his past. His present is at Commonwealth, one of my favorite restaurants in the States, where this soup has never appeared on the menu. At Bar Tartine, though, the soup was around for most of his three-year run. He could still remember most of the steps during our call, and as he walked me through the recipe, my remembrance began to crystallize.
A few days later, Fox sent me the full recipe. I split fans of Swiss chard into stems and leaves, then sliced the stems into thin half-moons and tore the leaves into large, rough pieces. I sautéed the stem bits with onion until almost soft, then added the leaf chunks. While those wilted, I added cilantro, garlic, and a load of olive oil to a food processor and blitzed until the three merged into a rough puree. Bread was torn into craggy pieces and toasted in olive oil. Eggs were poached, and a can of fat white beans was opened and rinsed.
I inhaled as I began to assemble a few bowls. In the past, this soup was not just good; it was important. Through the opaque lens of memory, had I imbued the dish with false deliciousness? When the soup’s primary function was its familiarity—its steadfastness when I could barely find stillness of my own?
I warmed some chicken stock and added the chard and beans, then the cilantro puree and salt. More than I would have imagined, even considering my stock was unsalted. Into the bowls went the bread, followed by the poached egg. A pause. It smelled right and good. Smell can trick, though, just like memory. I plunged a spoon deep, retrieving a blop of egg, a bean, a fainting lick of chard, and a hunk of bread. I slurped. The soup was sublime. Simple, but bursting with green and crunch and silk and lusciousness.
Nostalgia is pointless. Latching on to an idealized past seems to me a surefire way to scorn the now. Still, it can be useful. Food doesn’t have to be delicious to matter, if we decide it should. It can hold weight beyond its possible deliciousness. Sometimes nostalgia can hurtle into the present and, through taste, you see the present and past align. Memory still errs. Reliably so. Sometimes, though, memory can right itself.
Portuguese Bread and Cilantro Soup
Adapted from Jason Fox, chef-owner of Commonwealth in San Francisco
There’s a kind of alchemy in this soup from Jason Fox. He used to cook it at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine more than a decade ago. Each element—the greens and beans and bread and cilantro puree—is dead simple. Somehow when the elements unify, the dish leaps from basic addition to exponential goodness. You could use water, if you have no chicken stock. It’s a whole lot better with stock though.
2 cups torn country-style bread (about ½ loaf)
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch Swiss chard (stems diced, leaves torn and both separated)
½ small white onion, diced
1 bunch cilantro
1 clove garlic
2 cups chicken stock or water (much better with stock though)
1 cup large white beans, drained (you can use canned or precooked beans)
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat a skillet over medium heat and add ¼ cup olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add the bread and cook, stirring often until the bread is a little browned, about 5 minutes. Push the bread into a bowl and wipe the skillet.
Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to the skillet and warm over medium-low heat. Add the chard stems and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost tender, about 5 minutes. Add chard leaves and cook, stirring every so often, until both the leaves and stems are tender, another few minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the cilantro, garlic and ½ cup olive oil to either a blender or food processor. Puree until quite smooth and season with salt.
Add the stock to a pot over medium heat, along with the chard and drained beans. Meanwhile, bring a shallow pot of water to a boil then reduce to the lowest temperature possible. While using a spoon to create a gentle whirlpool, crack each of the eggs into the water, one at a time. Cook until the whites are set and the yolks are still jiggly, 4 minutes.
Add the cilantro puree to the stock, chard and beans and stir. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Divide the bread between four bowls, and do the same with the soup base itself. Top each bowl with a poached egg and serve.