Ordering pureed soup at a restaurant just feels fancy. That’s not because it’s made from pricey ingredients or enriched with loads of cream; in fact, some of the best soups I’ve had have been based on common vegetables or legumes blended with broth or water. What impresses is the thoughtful composition of the dish: There’s the soup itself, which is perfectly smooth after being pureed in a high-powered blender and passed through an ultrafine‑mesh strainer. And then there are the bold, diverse garnishes that sharpen the soup into something attention‑grabbing, artful, and deeply flavorful.
But I’m here to let you in on a little secret: There’s no need to go to a restaurant to have this experience. You can pull off something equally sumptuous and interesting without special equipment and with ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. And it all starts with a humble can of white beans. Not only are these legumes inexpensive and filling, but they are naturally creamy when pureed and have a mild flavor that provides the perfect canvas for a range of garnishes. And the fact that they’re already cooked means you can devote a little extra effort to making garnishes that really pop.
The soup itself comes together in about 20 minutes. I started by softening some aromatics (chopped onion and celery) in olive oil and then added thyme sprigs, sliced garlic, and a touch of cayenne pepper. Next came two cans of great Northern beans—a moderately starchy variety that made the soup velvety but not stodgy—along with their seasoned canning liquid, which added more bean flavor and viscous body. I covered the saucepan and simmered the beans until they started to soften and break down slightly, removed the thyme sprigs, pureed the mixture in the blender, and then thinned it with a few cups of water.
The soup was silky but tasted flat and lean, so I worked in a couple of tablespoons each of grated Parmesan and butter and swapped in chicken broth for the water. I purposely waited until the soup was done cooking before seasoning it with salt and lemon juice and adjusting its consistency with hot water, since the salt content and the beans and their canning liquid vary from brand to brand.
Then came the fun part: coming up with garnishes that would add brightness and contrast to the creamy, lean soup. My first idea was to whip up an easy, vibrant herb oil—something like a minimalist salsa verde made from extra-virgin olive oil, chopped parsley and basil, and capers. But while the oil tasted bright and fresh, the capers made it chunky and hard to drizzle elegantly. So I reengineered things to yield two interrelated garnishes instead of just one: First, I microwave-fried the capers in the oil, as we often do with aromatics such as garlic and shallots. After 5 minutes, the capers were crisp and delicate and had infused the oil with their briny punch. I strained out the capers and set them aside to cool; tossed the chopped herbs into the infused oil, which I drizzled over the silky soup; and followed with a sprinkling of the capers.
The tandem effect of the crispy capers and bright herb oil elevated the soup much more than either garnish would have on its own, and it inspired a few more pairs that delivered equally impressive visual and textural contrast from (mostly) pantry staples and deceptively little work: garlicky bread crumbs that soaked up fragrant, spicy oil from pieces of fried chorizo; olive oil and crunchy bits of quick-pickled celery; and a dollop of thick, lemony yogurt alongside needle-thin crispy leeks. With each combination, the soup took on a different character—like eating at a new restaurant every night.
Soup made with canned beans is convenient and satisfying. But can it be sophisticated, too? Surprisingly, yes.