Hayley’s Zuppa Toscano

Easy, delicious and packed with flavour

Contrary to the weather forecast, a sturdy breeze pushes persistent rain sideways, aiming to soak unprotected pant legs and feet. Visibility is poor. A ceiling of low clouds hangs over Friday Harbor. As if someone turned a giant pewter bowl upside down over us, the world beyond the marina has vanished. Occasional glimmers of light bounce off the water, but out a little farther, past the end of the docks, everything looks flat and dull and grey. It’s not a great day to take the boat out, but it’s perfect for a steaming bowl of hearty soup.

In Pelican’s saloon, the old-fashioned lamp hanging over the table casts a glow and the little fireplace in one corner has coaxed us out of our boots and thick wool sweaters. It is cheerful and cozy. While waiting for the ferry to bring friends from the mainland, what could be better than listening to Carla Bruni’s Little French Songs, sipping mulled wine and making zuppa Toscano? I’ll serve it with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a crusty, crunchy baguette. Unless the weather changes by the time we’ve eaten it, we’ll probably cancel our planned trip to Sidney. Perhaps tomorrow will be better, but today, it will be more fun to stay at the dock and play Yahtzee or Rummikub or poker.


This is not the first time my plans have gone awry. Last summer, when my niece, her husband and two teenagers came from Alberta, I planned a daylong cruise. I wanted to drop our hook in Parks Bay at Shaw Island and put down our crab pots. After that, I thought we could motor over to Lopez Island, anchor in Fisherman’s Bay and see what tempting morsels we could find at Holly B’s marvelous bakery. However, Pelican had other ideas. The previous weekend, on the way back from South Pender Island, the alternator did not charge the batteries. Oops! The men agreed that they had to solve that problem before we went anywhere. They spent several hours talking, laughing and checking everything over. After a while, I wondered if they preferred crouching down in the engine room to boating. Eventually, they determined that the alternator was fine. It just couldn’t charge the batteries and supply the inverter at the same time.

In the meantime, the kids had a great time roaming the docks, photographing everything on their phones. I doubt that the trip I had planned would have entertained them as well. They were tickled to make the acquaintance of a giant yellow jellyfish, a huge crab on a piling, lots of tiny fish and Popeye, our resident seal. When the tide went out, they scrambled over the rocks at the shoreline and discovered barnacles, tiny crabs, frilly anemones and starfish. I loved watching them introduce themselves to our neighbours that live under the dock. It reminded me that sometimes the simplest things are best.

At some point in time, our stomachs began to growl. While we walked up to King’s Market to buy sandwiches and salads from the deli, we talked about food and dishes we especially like to cook. I was delighted to find that 14-year-old Hayley is a soup maker, and her favourite is zuppa Toscano. I begged her to write down her recipe. Here it is—an easy recipe to make on the boat and the perfect thing to enjoy on a drizzly, grey, fall day.



Hayley’s Zuppa Toscano

Ingredients for 6 to 8 servings:

Note: If you prefer, you can substitute white cannellini beans for some of the potatoes, and add a couple of diced carrots. Also, if you are concerned about calories, the soup is not quite the same but still very good without the cream.

  • 4–5 strips bacon OR 142 grams pancetta—approx. 1/3 cup chopped and cooked
  • 450 grams spicy Italian sausage—chicken or turkey sausage okay
  • 1 medium to large sweet onion
  • 4–8 cloves garlic, to suit your taste
  • 6 cups (packed) chopped Swiss chard or other leafy vegetable such as kale or spinach plus chopped stems from the chard or kale
  • 3–4 large potatoes (russet preferred)
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon Italian herbs


  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or a pinch of cayenne or other pepper
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese and/or chopped parsley to garnish


  1. Wash the Swiss chard (or kale) carefully and cut the leaves from the stalks. Chop the stalks into thick slices and set aside. Cut the leaves into wide strips and set aside separately.
  2. Remove sausage from casings and sauté until no longer pink. Remove sausage from pan and discard fat.
  3. Chop bacon or pancetta into one-centimetre pieces and sauté until crisp. Remove from pan and discard all except two tablespoons fat (add olive oil to make two tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Dice the onion and add to pan with chopped chard stalks (or kale stalks) plus carrot if using. Stir, then reduce heat to low and sweat, partially covered, until softened  (five to 10 minutes).
  5. Add minced garlic. Stir approx. one minute before returning sausage to the pan and adding all seasonings (stir one minute).
  6. If using kale, stir it in now and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it is wilted and tender. Otherwise, go to next step.
  7. Add broth, wine and potatoes (or beans) and simmer gently 15 to 20 minutes. Note that beans tend to explode when simmered vigorously.
  8. When potatoes are nearly done, add Swiss chard (or spinach) and cook until wilted and tender. If desired, press some of the potatoes or beans against the side of the pot to mash them and thicken the soup.
  9. Add the bacon or pancetta and correct the seasonings.
  10. Remove from heat and stir in the cream. Serve sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley or both.