A quick fix makes greens in spring soup sing

HEARTY: A quick fix makes greens in spring soup sing. (Lauren Paskal Bro / For The Times)

So I ladled off a little more and replaced that. That was where I realized the law of diminishing returns was setting in. Ladling off the salty water worked the first time, but each successive time it helped less because the broth was becoming more and more diluted.

And there was also that darned law of unintended consequences. While I was doing a good thing reducing the saltiness and bitterness of the broth, I was also reducing the intensity of the flavor in general, a bad thing.

In short, I now had a big pot of fairly bland but also slightly salty soup and about 30 minutes to fix it.

Things were getting desperate. Visions of "Top Chef's" poor Jamie and her salty celery were floating through my head. Which of my guests would be the one to ask me to "pack my knives and go"?

Fortunately, this was where things began to improve. Taking deep, cleansing breaths, I focused: At this point the problem wasn't so much the saltiness and bitterness as it was the lack of complementary flavors to balance them.

The first thing I did was purée the greens a little more. The texture would be less than ideal, but this would release more flavor into the broth. Then I pulled out an old Italian mama trick: tossing in the rind from a spent chunk of Parmesan. (I keep a bag of them in the refrigerator.) It slowly melted into the hot soup, suffusing the broth with a subtle layer of that ineffable nutty, buttery flavor of good cheese.

I had a little ground fennel-black pepper spice rub left from the pork roast, so I stirred in some of that. Almost there.

Tart technique

The thing that really turned the dish around was something that might seem paradoxical. I added a little sherry vinegar -- not much, mind you, maybe just half a cap. The effect was startling.

There is, of course, a difference between "sour" and "bitter." Adding a little sour vinegar to the soup rounded out the bitterness, smoothing its sharpness. It somehow filled in all of those flavor spaces I'd emptied out with my careless ladling.

I kept the soup warm until the guests arrived, then stirred in the cooked pasta, which provided a nicely bland contrast to the soup. I grated the Parmesan over the top and, holding my breath, carried the bowls out to the table.

People were quiet at first, as they spooned up the first of the soup, and I tensed, fearing the worst. But then they started talking again, and eating, and drinking wine, and gradually I relaxed.

I'm not going to lie to you: This wasn't one of those triumphal dishes where everyone hoisted me onto their shoulders and paraded me around the block (I'm so tired of that anyway, and I'm sure the neighbors are too). But the soup was really good and comforting in that way only greens can be on a rainy night.

And then I realized I still had one more decision to make: whether to tell my guests everything that had gone into that little bowl of soup. I started to, but then changed the subject at the last minute, the words of Julia Child echoing in my ears: "Never apologize; never explain."

And a couple of weeks later, that's one idea that still seems like a good one. So let's just keep this between you and me.