This Bean Soup comes to you from El Bulli restaurant, famed in its time for topping the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, year after year. But fear not! This is not a complex Michelin star dish. It’s a simple bean soup from the El Bulli staff cookbook.
If this tasty little number is good enough for the folks behind this world class restaurant, it’s good enough for the rest of us!
Bean Soup from El Bulli
El Bulli was a restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, that cemented its place in dining history as one of the world’s all-time greatest restaurants. This 3-Michelin restaurant run by the chef Ferran Adrià is best known as a pioneer of molecular gastronomy – a highly technical, innovative style of food that sought to redefine traditional preconceptions of food and dining.
Famously only open for 5 months of the year, landing a reservation in its heyday was akin to striking gold. Even billionaires and Hollywood elites would chopper in, clamouring for a chance to taste mind-bending nouveau-Spanish dishes like spherified liquid olives and the “vanishing ravioli”. Quite a step up from the sort of nosh I’m used to sharing on this website!
The dishes cooked by the kitchen for staff meals however were much more recognisable, home-style fare by comparison. A collection of these recipes is published in “The Family Meal” El Bulli cookbook. This food is definitely much closer to home and on my level!!😂
The bean soup I’m sharing today is based on a recipe from the book. No dehydrators, Pacojets or xanthan gum needed for this one, I promise! All it is is just a good, traditional Spanish bean soup topped with a deliciously punchy, pesto-like picada that really brings it home.
The original recipe from “The Family Meal” El Bulli cookbook contains clams. I was specifically looking for a vegetarian bean soup so I left it out, and still thought it was delicious. So that’s what I’m sharing today.
Ingredients in El Bulli’s Bean Soup
There’s two parts to this bean soup: the bean soup itself and picada, a pesto-like condiment used in Catalan cuisine. Don’t even think about skipping it. It really makes this otherwise very simple soup!
Ingredients in the soup
Here’s what you need for the soup:
Vegetable stock (forgive the typo above, I will fix it!) – Store-bought is fine but honestly, homemade vegetable stock is a cinch to make and takes this soup from good to great! Somehow I cannot imagine El Bulli making this with packet stock! 😂
Beans – Just everyday canned cannellini beans. El Bulli made this with dried beans they cooked themselves, which do taste better than canned. I opted for canned for convenience however so I (you!) can make this soup right now. But I’ve included directions in the recipe for making this with dried beans.
Tomato passata – Pureed, strained pure tomatoes, sometimes labelled “tomato puree” in the US (here’s a photo of Mutti tomato passata sold at Walmart). It’s readily available in Australian supermarkets nowadays, alongside pasta sauces. More on tomato passata here.
El Bulli probably made their own from fresh tomatoes. We will do just fine with store bought. 😉
Garlic and onion – Essential flavour base for an otherwise simple soup.
Extra virgin olive oil – For cooking. El Bulli probably pressed their own – heh! But you can just use store bought, don’t worry 👍🏻
Bay leaves, thyme and rosemary – A surprisingly small amount compared to the usual generous volumes of herbs I use in my recipes, and it’s all we need for their subtle flavour.
I also feel (immaturely) very smug that I can say these are out of my own garden. 🙌🏻
The real El Bulli clam version
If you feel that you are ready for the full El Bulli experience by adding clams, here’s how:
Soak clams for 1 hour as this will help the clams to purge themselves of any sand.
Remove from the water and add them to the soup 5 minutes before the end.
If clams aren’t available, use mussels instead. 😊
Ingredients for the Picada
As mentioned above, Picada is to Catalans what pesto might be to Italians and sauce verte to the French. A brightly herby green paste emulsified with oil, a dollop or a smear of it just makes everything better. This bean soup is no exception!
There are many variants of Picada, but generally it is made with some kind of nut (almond is most common but the hazelnut flavour here is on point), parsley, oil (to emulsify the sauce) and usually garlic. Sometimes bread is also added to thicken it, but we don’t need that for our purpose.
To make the Picada, it’s as simple as 1-2-3 (4):
Toast hazelnuts in a skillet with no oil until it smells nutty, shaking the skillet regularly – about 4 minutes on medium heat. This brings out the flavour of the hazelnuts, so don’t skip this step!
Remove most of the skin by bundling them up in a tea towel and rubbing with your hands (see video for demo). Then roughly chop them so it’s easier to blitz. If you don’t chop them, the parsley will be pulverised into a green smoothie before the hazelnuts are crushed.
Combine all ingredients in a jug or jar just large enough to fit the head of a stick blender.
Blitz until it has a consistency of pesto. It shouldn’t be pureed into a smooth paste, you want a bit of texture, like so:
How to make El Bulli’s Bean Soup
The 3 key steps here to extract the most out of just a few ingredients are:
Sautéing onion for a good 8 minutes until golden brown and almost caramelised;
Cooking down the tomato passata for 8 minutes until concentrated and sweetened; and
Pureeing a bit of the beans to release flavour and thicken the broth.
Sauté onions slowly – Sauté onion, garlic and herbs for 8 minutes on medium heat until it is golden and almost caramelised (like we do for French Onion soup – except this for 52 minutes less!) Don’t rush this step – the onions transform from pungent to sweet. Also, cooking the herbs on a low heat releases the flavour.
Cook down tomato passata for 8 minutes – This step cooks out the water, concentrates the flavour and intensifies the sweetness. Again, don’t rush this step – it’s just another little thing that makes a difference in this otherwise simple soup!
Simmer – Add the beans and vegetable stock, then simmer for 15 minutes.
Puree – Remove 2/3 cup of the soup and beans then use a stick blender to puree until smooth.
Stir in puree – Add the puree back into the soup and stir. This thickens the watery soup broth into a creamy consistency and colour.
Add some Picada – Just before serving, add in half the Picada and stir. This changes the colour of the soup from orange-red to a red-olive colour with little green bits in it. Just for fun, taste the soup before and after the Picada so you can marvel at the difference it makes!
It’s best to do this just before serving to preserve the green colour. Having said that though, don’t fret about leftovers – it’s fine if the parsley loses its bright green colour because we hold some picada back to dollop on top of the soup.
Serve! Once the Picada is stirred in, the bean soup is ready to serve. Ladle into bowls and dollop with a some of the reserved Picada for a hit of freshness and flavour.
That is one seriously good bowl of soup right there. And to think it’s “just” made with canned beans!
I know some of you may be tempted to skip the Picada, thinking it’s an extra step you’d rather avoid. But I promise you, it’s worth it. It totally makes it. Don’t leave it out! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
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Simple Bean Soup from El Bulli (world’s all time greatest restaurant!)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 garlic clove (large), minced
- 1 brown onion , (1 large, 2 small), finely chopped (~180g/6oz)
- 1/4 tsp fresh thyme , chopped (sub 1/8 tsp dried)
- 1/4 tsp fresh rosemary , chopped (sub 1/8 tsp dried)
- 1 bay leaf , fresh (or 1/2 dried)
- 1/3 cup tomato passata (Note 1)
- 4 x 400g/14oz cans cannellini beans , drained (Note 2 for dried)
- 3 cups vegetable stock , preferably homemade (else low sodium store bought) (Note 3)
Picada recipe (makes 4 tbsp):
- 1 cup fresh parsley leaves , roughly chopped (ie chop then lightly pack in)
- 1 garlic clove (medium), roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup whole hazelnuts , skin on (or almonds)
- 1/2 tsp cooking / kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp table salt) (Note 4)
- Saute onion and herbs 8 minutes: Heat oil in a large heavy based pot over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, herbs and cook, stirring regularly, for 8 minutes until the onions are a deep golden brown and sweet.
- Cook tomato passata 8 minutes: Add tomato passata and cook over low heat for another 8 minutes until the tomato changes from red and watery to dark brown a d very thick. Don't skimp on this step, it's key for flavour!
- Simmer: Stir in the beans followed by the vegetable stock. Adjust heat so it's bubbling very gently and simmer for 15 minutes with the lid off.
- Blitz: Transfer 2/3 cup (150ml) of soup into a jug or jar large enough to fit the head of a blender stick. Blitz until smooth then stir it back into the soup to thicken the broth.
- Stir in Picada: Just before serving, stir in 2 tablespoons of Picada. Taste and add more salt if needed (canned beans differ in salt). Then serve immediately.
- Serve: Dollop each bowl with 1 teaspoon of remaining Picada. Crusty bread highly recommended (easy Artisan, no yeast bread or French brioche).
- Toast hazelnuts: Preheat a small skillet over medium heat. Add hazelnuts and toast, shaking the skillet regularly, until there are golden patches and they smell nutty.
- Remove most skin: Transfer hazelnuts to a clean tea towel. Bundle up and rub vigorously with hands to remove most of the skin (which is bitter). (No need to do this with almonds)
- Blitz: Roughly chop hazelnuts then add into a jug just large enough to fit the head of a stick blender with remaining ingredients. Blitz until it's like pesto – not completely smooth. Use per recipe.
- 1 can = 1 3/4 cups beans once drained
- Recipe calls for 4 cans = 7 cups beans
- 1 cup dried beans = 2 3/4 cups cooked
- So you will need 2.5 cups dried beans (2.5 x 2.75 = 7 cups cooked beans)
- Soak clams for 1 hour as this will help the clams to purge themselves of any sand.
- Remove from the water and add them to the soup 5 minutes before the end.
- If clams aren’t available, use mussels instead. 😊
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