A dear friend of mine and her husband moved their family to Switzerland last year, and twice this year they graciously have rolled out the welcome mat for me. It was an amazing adventure, the proof of which is in my waistline. Here is a recipe for Tuscan Bread Soup, and in the next few weeks, I’ll get busy catching up on my recipes.

If you’ve been following my “50 Dishes by 50” recipes over the past few months, you may have noticed I’ve been slacking the last few weeks. That’s because I took off for spring break.

A dear friend of mine and her husband moved their family to Switzerland last year, and twice this year they graciously have rolled out the welcome mat for me. Lucky, I know. It gets even better. This time, I went with a girlfriend.

We traveled light, as in no spouses or kids. Call it the girlfriends’ getaway of a lifetime, arranged by our three husbands as 50th birthday gifts for us three gals, who have been friends for 25 years, and we all celebrate the big one this year.

After a week in the Alps, we spent another week gallivanting through postcard villages in France, the rolling hills of Tuscany and the breathtaking lake region of Como, where sadly, we did not see George Clooney –– and believe me, we looked.

It was an amazing adventure, the proof of which is in my waistline. Here is a recipe for Tuscan Bread Soup, and in the next few weeks, I’ll get busy catching up on my recipes.

Tuscan bread soup is a hearty peasant dish that is more like a brothy stew made with chicken stock, ham, cannellini beans, tomatoes and more. As its name implies, it also contains bread. Peasants made good use of their leftover bread by drying and crumbling it, then using it as a soup thickener.

Recipe variations abound, but I think this is closest to the sublime dish I enjoyed one glorious afternoon at a trattoria in Sienna near Tuscany. The owner, a young Italian woman, instructed me on the proper garnishing technique.

“This,” she said, handing me a bottle of olive oil and a bowl of red onion, sliced thin.

The grassy-ness of the extra virgin olive oil and the bite of the onion were the perfect accompaniment. 

“Buonissimo!” I offered in my best Italian, which means very, very delicious.

As a side note, before I left, Anthony “T.J.” Hamilton, chef of Bistro 131 in New Philadelphia, Ohio, told me I must try Lardo di Colonnata while on my trip.

“Anything with the word ‘colon’ in it can’t be good,” I told him.

“Lardo di Colonnata is perhaps the greatest invention known to man,” he said. He went on to tell me about this product that has been a Tuscan delicacy since the 13th century. It’s a fascinating food.  

“It is pork fat back that is rubbed with sage and rosemary and tucked away in caves in small marble casks that have been in use for hundreds of years,” Hamilton said. “Colonnata is famous for its white marble, and the fat is aged in this marble at just the right temperature for just the right time. The end result yields a stark-white crusted slab of pork lusciousness. To eat it, you simply slice it paper thin and blanket a warm chunk of crusty bread with it.  That’s it.  Pork fat on warm bread.

“Sounds so simple, but it takes a year or two to capture this magic. Funny thing, the health department in Italy tried to shut the marble cask aspect of the operation down, being that they are fairly gnarly after residing in a dank cave for hundreds of years, encapsulating pork fat all the while. Let’s just say that this notion was not received well, and I am fairly certain many a death threat was tossed around. All and all, it is still aged in marble, so the health department apparently minded their own business! This is a must-eat, and you can find it in most markets,” Hamilton said.

Find it I did, at the Central Market in Florence. After my initial hesitation, I dug in and discovered that the gleaming white fat was soft and aromatic, along the lines of a rich butter. (Pssst, Anthony, I brought some back for you.)

By the way, you can bring cheese, cooked meat and other products from abroad home with you, so as long as it has gone through the cryovac process.

Tuscan Bread Soup

3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed 1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped 1 carrot, peeled and chopped 1 celery stalk, chopped 1 cup diced ham 1⁄4 cup pancetta, chopped 1⁄4 cup olive oil 1 (15-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes 3 (15-ounce) cans cannellini or great northern beans, drained and rinsed 5 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade, plus more if necessary 1 sprig fresh rosemary 1 bunch kale, finely chopped 4 slices Italian or hearty white bread, toasted and crushed into breadcrumbs Red onion, thinly sliced Olive oil Grated Parmesan

In a large pot over medium heat, sauté the first six ingredients in olive oil for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, along with the beans, broth and rosemary. Simmer, covered, until the beans begin to break apart, about an hour or a little longer. Add kale and cook for 8 minutes more. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Add a little more broth if desired. Serve in bowls, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with onion and top with Parmesan cheese.