Swiss Chard, Cannellini Bean, and Barley Soup

Zuppa di Biete, Cannellini e Orzo

If you are in Italy and see a soup with orzo on the menu, then you are likely to have come to one of the two northeast regions, Trentino or Friuli, where barley, orzo in Italian, is a popular soup ingredient. Don’t mistake it for the pasta shape by the same name, which is more common in Middle Eastern than in Italian cooking.

I have based this chard and barley soup on various models, all from Friuli. Some may have had spinach instead of chard or cranberry beans instead of cannellini, or omitted the tomatoes, or added garlic—all of them choices that you too can make. I am happy with my version: I like tomatoes in a soup—they add a fresh, sharp taste—and although I certainly don’t shrink from using garlic, I don’t have to have it always. It’s possible, too, to substitute rice for barley, but I would miss the barley if it weren’t there. There is such a satisfyingly chewy quality to barley, and moreover there is something about its pearl-like shape that feels very good in the mouth. It takes a long while to cook, between 40 and 45 minutes, although you can cook it less if you want it firmer. Be careful, however; don’t go overboard on firmness, because the tenderness of fully cooked barley is very appealing.

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  • 1 pound Swiss chard
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • ½ cup finely chopped celery
  • cup chopped, peeled fresh tomatoes or canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up with their juice
  • Salt
  • ½ cup pearl barley
  • cups canned cannellini beans, drained, or ¾ cup dried white kidney beans, soaked overnight as directed and drained
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for the table


  1. Soak the chard in a basin of cold water for about 10 minutes, drain, then wash in several changes of cold water. If it is mature chard with broad stalks, detach the stalks and cut them across into short, very thin strips approximately inch wide. Cut the leaves into narrow strips about ¼ inch wide.
  2. Put the olive oil and the chopped onion in a soup pot and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the onion, stirring from time to time, until it becomes colored a light gold, then add the chopped carrot and celery. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally; then add the tomatoes, turning them over once or twice.

    After another 6 minutes or so, add the cut-up chard leaves and stalks and some salt. Turn the contents of the pot over to mix them well, cover the pot, and turn the heat down to the lowest setting.

  3. In the meanwhile, bring 4 to 5 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan, put in the barley, and cook at a gentle but steady simmer for about 40 minutes—more if you like the barley very tender, or possibly slightly less if you like it chewy. Drain the barley into a small bowl, but do not discard the water in which it cooked.
  4. Taste the chard leaves and stalks. When both are quite soft, add the cooked barley and the drained beans. Turn over all the contents of the pot to mix them thoroughly, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes longer, always at low heat.
  5. Add as much of the water in which you boiled the barley as you deem necessary to bring the soup to a desirable consistency. This soup is meant to be rather on the dense side, but you can thin it to taste by adding additional water if required. Add salt and a few grindings of pepper, stir, and cook just long enough to heat up the liquid you have just added. Serve with grated Parmesan available on the side.