Every year, around Christmas time nostalgic images of my grandmother making Escudella i Carn d’Olla come to my mind. I see her on Christmas Eve sitting in front of the huge pot for hours. I found it so terribly exciting as a child…
Escudella (for short) is a traditional Catalan soup recipe with vegetables, a handful of legumes, and meats served in two courses. Any cold winter day is a great day to enjoy this restorative, versatile soup that warms your body and your soul. In fact, it used to be the cure-all when someone was ill, fainted, or felt discouraged.
As gastronomist Miquel Sen reminds us:
“When European homes had no heating, one of the basic ways to comfort themselves were the soups.”
What’s the Meaning of Escudella i Carn d’Olla?
Escudella is an old Catalan term for bowl that until the 19th century was also used to refer to soups in general and later on came to designate the dish Escudella i Carn d’Olla we discuss here.
There are other traditional dishes named after the container or kitchen utensil, for instance paella, and Olha Aranesa or Aranese Pot, another version of Escudella cooked in Aran, in the Catalan Pyrenees. Carn means meat and an olla is a pot, hence Carn d’olla can be literally translated as Meat from the pot.
Everyday Escudella versus Christmas Escudella
With the exception of the Sunday’s rice dish, our grandparents and even some of our parents ate Escudella i Carn d’Olla six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. There were two versions of Escudella, a humbler one for every day and a much more splendid one for Christmas, the Escudella de Nadal.
The sumptuosity of the dish varied quite a lot depending on the social class, the family means and the urban or rural family residence. And although now we don’t eat it every day any more, it is still a pillar of Catalan cuisine that most Catalans can cook.
On Christmas day, the first course was and still is the Sopa de galets, which is the broth with a very large shell soup pasta called galets, and the second course the Carn d’olla, which includes the meats, pulses and vegetables used for cooking the broth.
On regular days, instead of the galets pasta you add a handful of short, round rice and thick fideus or fideos to the broth to make the soup.
Writer and gastronome Ferran Agulló (1863 – 1933) warns us:
“But the authentic Catalan Escudella is with rice and fideus, which should be thick.”
The Origin of Escudella i Carn d’Olla
Escudella originated in the rural areas of Catalonia where farmers added to the pot the seasonal vegetables and meats they had available in their pantries at the moment.
Several countries and regions in the Mediterranean and Europe have similar dishes, but the distinguishing factors of Escudella Catalana are: pilota, our unique egg-shaped large meatball, the four different meats: pork, poultry, veal and lamb —known as the Four Evangelists!— and the fact that it is served as a two-course meal.
In its different versions, Escudella i carn d’olla is an archaic dish that fed people from the Catalan countries for centuries. In fact, it is the oldest referenced soup in Europe. Franciscan writer Francesc Eiximenis, who lived in the 14th century, already noted that Catalans ate it every single day.
Can Anyone Make Escudella Catalana?
The list of ingredients may be long but this soup recipe with meats and vegetables is surprisingly forgiving and easy to cook. The decisive elements that you do have to put in are patience and attention. Pressure cookers aren’t allowed and you have to add every ingredient at the right time so that no ingredient dominates and all the flavors are balanced.
As this soup recipe has to cook for a few hours, unless you work at home, it isn’t a dish for every day any more. However, once ready the broth keeps well in the refrigerator for two or three days. You only need a few minutes to cook the noodles every time.
Is this Recipe for Escudella i Carn d’Olla Pantagruelian?
The quantities I am giving you are rather moderate but don’t be afraid to modify them according to your needs or the occasion. But do your best to keep the balance of the flavors. You can even adapt the ingredients by adding, for instance, less pork and removing the pig’s foot, but do keep the four different meats.
I also have my own preferences as I often like to add two large oval meatballs and then I use one pound ground meat for the pilota instead of half a pound!
Meats for the broth
- 1 pound or 1/2 kg veal rib or leg, or other bone-in veal meat
- 1 piece of lamb ribs —about 9 ounces or 250 g
- Half a hen, halved. If the hen is very big, 1/4 will do. Replace with chicken if you don’t have hen
- 1 breast quarter of chicken
- 5 ounces or 150 g pancetta or (non-smoked) bacon —cut into 2 thick slices
- 1 pig’s foot —halved lengthwise
- 1 or 2 veal bones, if possible with the marrow —about 1 pound or 500 g
- 2 botifarra negra sausages, about 1/2 pound or 250 g. If you can’t get it replace it with blood sausage without rice
Vegetables for the broth
- 1 small turnip —peeled
- 2 big carrots —cleaned
- 1 parsnip —peeled
- 1 leek —use only the white part
- 1/2 green cabbage —discard the outer leaves
- 3 ribs of celery with the leaves, or 2 ribs Chinese celery
- 4 medium-sized potatoes, new, yellow varieties are the best —peeled and quartered
Pulses and pasta for this soup recipe
- 7 ounces or 200 g dried chick peas —soaked overnight
- 5 ounces or 150 g dried white beans —soaked overnight
- 10 ounces or 300 g galets or lumaconi, or conchiglioni, or another large shell pasta. Alternatively, use 1/2 cup or 100 g thick fideus or fideos or fedelini (fidelini) broken into 2-inch or 5-cm pieces and 1/2 cup or 100 g round rice
For the pilota or large meat ball
- 1/2 pound or 250 g ground meat. For this soup recipe, the best is to mix half pork half veal, it gives it more consistency, otherwise only pork
- 1 garlic clove —peeled and minced
- 1 sprig flat parsley —minced
- 1 egg
- 1 pinch cinnamon powder
- 1 pinch black pepper
- 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
Soup recipe preparation method
Preparation time: About 30 minutes.
Cooking time: About 3:30 hours.
- Soak the chick peas and the white beans in water overnight in two separate bowls. In the morning, when you are ready to start cooking the escudella and carn d’olla, drain them and set them aside.
- Rinse the meats and bones to remove any remaining blood that could darken the broth.
- Add about 6 quarts or 6 liters of room-temperature water to a large soup pot. Add all meats and bones except the sausages and the ground meat. Bring to a boil, and boil covered over medium-low fire for 1 hour. Skim as necessary.
- In the meantime make the pilota or large meatball. Optionally, lightly beat the egg. Add the ground meat to a cutting board or another surface. Make a well and put the egg, garlic, parsley, cinnamon, pepper, breadcrumbs and salt. Work all ingredients together with your hands to integrate them thoroughly. Form it into an oval zeppelin or egg shape. Place some flour in a plate and make the meatball jump a few times. This gives it consistency. Flour the pilota and set aside.
- Add the chick peas and continue boiling covered for another hour.
- Add the dry beans, carrots, parsnip, turnip and leek and cook for 1 more hour.
- Add the cabbage leaves, the celery, the potatoes, the sausages, the floured pilota and salt. Cook for 30 more minutes. Adjust salt if necessary.
- Remove from heat. Strain out most of the broth into another soup pot. Let the meats and vegetables in the original pot, covered, in the remaining hot broth.
- Bring the drained broth to a boil, add galets or another large shell pasta. Bring to a boil again, and cook until the pasta is very tender, not al dente. Or as we discussed above, instead of shell pasta, you can add rice and fideus or other short thick noodles