Ur-Soup: the ultimate frugal, flexible soup recipe

I love soup. It’s just the perfect food, especially in the fall and winter on those chilly windy days.

At some point I realized that my template-loving self had hit on a really easy formula; I could pull this out a couple of times a week with no one the wiser that I was essentially making the same thing again and again.  One of my variations is posted over at The Green Phone Booth today–but it’s essentially right off of this template. 

This is the “recipe” I give to friends who say they can’t cook, or don’t have time to.  It’s sort of a basic cooking lesson and grocery-bill (or take-out-bill!) reducer all in one.

This is also the ultimate “clean out the fridge get rid of the leftovers” soup recipe.  Though occasionally you’ll miss the mark and do something that winds up tasting really weird, most of the time all those little containers of leftovers can find a happy home in soup.

The Template

  • Two parts broth
  • Two parts diced tomatoes in juice (seasoned or not)
  • 1-2 part cooked grain such as rice or barley (optional)
  • 1-2 parts cooked protein such as legumes or cut up meat (optional)
  • 1-2 parts vegetables (optional)
  • seasonings to taste (more on this below)

That’s it. Dontcha love the vagueness of ingredient amounts? That’s because it really doesn’t matter how much of anything you throw into that broth-tomato mixture. In a pinch just throwing the above into a pot together and heating it till it’s not will give you a better than adequate fairly cheap nutritionally complete dinner.  However:

Some refinements:


  • Start by heating a little oil in your soup pot, chopping an onion and/or some garlic (or using pre-crushed garlic from a jar if you’re lazy like me), and sauteeing them in the oil until soft and fragrant.  Then add broth and tomatoes and heat.
  • What vegetables are you using? If you are using mushrooms or bell peppers, it’s better to add them at this point (after the onoin and garlic are soft) and saute them as well, before adding the broth and tomatoes
  • Most other vegetables (green beans, carrots, peas, Generic Frozen Veggie Blend, whatever) will do best added after the liquid is hot. 
  • Root veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes, chunks of squash, etc.) take a little longer to cook than most other veggies; just be sure to give them time. (I generally don’t use these, because they mess up my template a little! But some people can’t imagine soup without potatoes…so there ya go.)
  • Chopped spinach (a great addition to almost any soup!) is best tossed in about 2 minutes before taking the soup off the heat, 5 if it was frozen.  I almost never make any soup at all without throwing some spinach into it, mostly because I don’t much like spinach and I know it’s a nutritional powerhouse–so I toss it into things where it will be fairly innocuous.

GRAINS–when to add?

  • If you have leftover pre-cooked grains, such as rice, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, pasta, or whatever (I’ve never tried any of the quick-grains like couscous or bulghur in soups, so I’m not sure what they’d do; probably they’d be fine), then add it at the end of your cooking time, maybe 10 minutes before serving or even less–just give them enough time to heat through.  This is the easiest way to have some control over exactly how thick your soup will be–but be aware that the cooked grains, the longer they cook, will still absorb liquid and give off a little more starch, thickening the soup a bit–you could add them earlier if you want this effect. (I love it.)
  • If you need to cook the grains in the soup, you have to pay a little more attention, and decide in advance what kind of soup you like better:
  • If you like a very broth-y soup with some nice grains floating around in it, you can probably just grab a small handful of Whatever and toss it in at a time that corresponds with the grain’s particular cooking time. (White rice, 20 minutes before serving.  Brown, more like 40. Barley also 40-ish. Pasta, read the package.) (Also, you should note that pasta cooked in the soup like this tends to get a little slipperier in texture; if you want a nice al dente, cook it by itself and add it at the end.) It shouldn’t change your end result much if you do it this way.
  • If you like a very thick, stew-like soup, just be cautious and do a little math before throwing a cup of uncooked rice into your soup.  So let’s say you started with two cups of broth: one cup of rice will absorb two cups of liquid before we pronounce it “done,” so probably anything above half a cup of rice thrown into your two cups of broth and can of tomatoes will give you a lovely rice dish rather than soup. (Hey, but the rice dish will be yummy, so knock yourself out!) Quite honestly, I almost always overdo the grains and end up adding more broth or water at the end.

PROTEINS (beans and lentils)

  • With beans, it’s almost always easier to use pre-cooked, whether from a can or from your freezer where you pre-cooked and froze a bunch of kidney/great Northern/cannellini/black turtle beans a few months ago and saved them in easy-to-thaw-sized chunks.
  • Lentils or split peas, on the other hand, are awesome for this kind of soup–they don’t need soaking or pre-cooking. BUT…like the grains, be aware that lentils will soak up double their volume in liquid, so either compensate by adding more liquid or do the math so you know how much liquid they will soak up in the cooking process, adding to whatever you’re losing with your grains.  And keep cooking time in mind.

PROTEIN (meat or fish)

  • If your meat is already cooked, such as strips of grilled chicken or a couple of cut-up pre-cooked seasoned sausages or what-have-you, you can add it pretty much wherever in the process you want. 
  • If you are starting with lean raw meat, saute it in the beginning with the onion and garlic; try to brown the individual pieces on each side so they hold onto their own juices a bit.  If you are using ground meat  (see my beef rant here, but only if you want to…) or uncooked sausage and it’s not extra-lean to begin with, cook it by itself first, drain off the fat, and then do the onions and garlic afterwards in the pot along with it.
  • Another note about sausage, if you’re starting with the uncooked kind: you can either take the casing off and cook it like ground beef, or slice it still in the casing.  If you’re doing this, you either need a really sharp knife or sausage that was frozen and is just beginning to thaw, because it wants to squish out of its casing.  Like many other things, sausage is easier to deal with if it’s cooked before you start!
  • Fish I don’t use much in my soups, but my mom does. (She lives near the Maine coast and basically she gets fish that was swimming this morning and is on the table tonight…that kind of fish is too yummy to put into soup in any premeditated way!)  If the fish is already cooked, like last night’s salmon fillets or something, just break it up and put it into the soup at the very end, right before the spinach.  If the fish is raw, cut it up into pieces and add it maybe 10-15 minutes before serving, depending on the fish type and what size pieces you’re dealing with.  Just test a few pieces to make sure they are cooked all the way through, that’s all.
  • Ham is something that can add a nice smoky flavor to your soup.  Cut it up and saute it with your onions from the beginning, browning it a bit.  Caution: ham is very salty, so you might want to use low sodium broth if you’re using ham, or wait and add the ham later!

If, like me, you want something a little thicker than what you’ve got–a little bit of mashed potato (even the instant stuff, if it won’t cause my Green Card to be revoked if I publicly admit that I use it) stirred in near the end also does great things for hearty-ing it up a bit.  Bear in mind that the thicker a soup is, the more likely it is to burn, so if you’re using the stove and not the crockpot you’ll need to stir more often if you do this.

Good luck!

Posted on November 5, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. These can be cooked in a microwave, or a deep pan on the stove, or in a crockpot.
    (these recipes are for a 700w microwave if you use your microwave, adjust time for higher microwaves).
    1. Savory Pork Chops:
    2 or 4 medium pork chops
    1 can (10 oz) cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
    Trim fat, arrange in baking dish in one layer, spread soup over top, cover with microwave cling wrap or a lid, and microwave about 18 minutes or until tender.
    2. Pork Chop and Apple Roast:
    2 or 4 pork chops trimmed
    1/4 cup sugar
    1 tsp. salt
    1/2 tsp. pepper
    1/4 tsp. cinnamon
    1/4 tsp. nutmeg
    2 tart apples, cored
    1 large onion
    Blend sugar, salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmed. Coat chops thoroughly. Stand them upright in a glass loaf pan. Cut apples into slices and the onion into slices. Place one of each between the chops, and the extra apple slices at each end. Cover, microwave 14 to 15 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.
    3. Saucy Chicken (one of our favorites…..can’t stop eating it!)
    2-1/2 to 3 lb. frying chicken, cut up
    1 can (10 oz) golden mushroom soup, or cream of mushroom soup
    If you all like mushrooms, you can add 1 can (4 oz) mushrooms, drained to the soup
    1 tsp. salt
    Arrange chicken skin side up in baking dish. Place the largest pieces toward the outside. Spoon soup over chicken, cover, microwave about 25 minutes. Turn dish occasionally.
    4. Meat Loaf
    1-1/2 lbs ground beef
    3/4 lb ground pork
    1/2 pkg. dry onion soup mix (found in a small package usually in the soup section)
    1/2 cup V-8 or tomato juice
    salt, pepper
    1/4 tsp. garlic powder if you wish
    6 soda crackers, crushed
    Combine all ingredients. Then press mixture into a loaf pan. Cover, microwave 18 minutes, turning 1/4 turn every five minutes. After ten minutes drain excess juices. If desired, spread catsup over top the last five minutes. Let stand five minutes before serving.
    5. Ground Beef Stroganoff:
    1 lb ground beef
    1 small onion, chopped (you can buy pre chopped onions in a package in the frozen section…..see, I told you I don’t like to cook…..ha, ha, ha!)
    1 can (10 oz) cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
    1 can (4 oz) mushrooms WITH the juice
    1/2 tsp. instant beef bouillon (if you have it)
    1 cup (1/2 pt) sour cream or sour half & half (you can now get sour cream in a can!!! Keeps on the kitchen shelf for a long time)
    Crumble beef into a 1-1/2 quart casserole. Add onion. Microwave uncovered about 6 minutes (remember this is for a 700w oven). Draim off as much fat as possible. Add remaining ingredients, stirring well, cover, microwave 7 minutes until heated through. Can be serve over rice, or noodles, or toast.

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