Lunch for a Month at $1.20 Per Meal
By Mary Johnson, a.k.a “The Soup Lady”
One of my favorite cheap eats is a pot of homemade full-flavored bean vegetable soup. Ingredients can vary by season and what you have on hand, and this basic recipe lends itself to all sorts of flavor variations. I freeze mine and later add cooked potatoes, pasta or cooked grain when re-heating. You can also add leftover bits of cooked chicken, beef stew meat or shrimp.
I think it’s just as much work to make a small batch of soup as a large one, so I typically use a big 6-quart soup pot, and fill it up. I freeze most of my soups in 2 - 4 cup reusable glass Pyrex containers, but I usually put aside a quart or two in clean recycled glass jars to share with family or neighbors. This much soup can take up a lot of space while cooling in your fridge, and storage room in your freezer. So, I’ve cut my normal 24 cup recipe in half. The version below will yield about 3 quarts or 6, 2-cup servings of soup that work out to cost about $1.20 per bowl.
While some people prefer to cook their beans first and discard the bean cooking water, I generally cook the entire soup in one pot at the same time. The bean cooking liquid becomes the soup stock and the onions and flavorings provide the beans with a great flavor.
Mo Jo’s Bean Vegetable Soup
1 1/4 cup dried beans (any type, including soup blends)
2 tbl. cooking oil, olive oil, or canola work fine
1 large onion
2 large fresh carrots, chopped
2 large stalks celery with leaves, chopped
1/2 large bulb fennel with leafy fronds (optional)
4-6 cloves garlic
1 medium zucchini
8 oz. fresh green beans or use a 14.5 oz can
1 - 29 oz. can diced tomatoes (use fresh tomatoes in season if you have some)
6-8 oz. chopped leafy green such as escarole, endive, radicchio, kale, arugula, or try fresh wild dandelion greens from the yard which are fantastic
1/3 cup fresh chopped Parsley
Herb Seasoning Blend
1 tsp or more to taste of each of the following: fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil. (if using dried herbs use roughly 1/3 teaspoon each)
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. chili
Salt and pepper to taste (add a little at a time and taste.)
Prepare the beans. Let’s not agonize over this. Put the beans in a colander, sieve, or bowl and rinse with cool water. I use a deep ceramic bowl fill it with cool water and scoop the beans out. Most cooks pick over the beans to get rid of the odd bean or two that is “damaged.” Get rid of any that are all shriveled up, obviously brown or moldy and don’t worry about those that are simply broken in half. Broken beans cook a little faster than whole ones and may get mushy before the rest are fully cooked, but that just helps to thicken the soup.
Soaking beans versus cooking from dried state. While presoaking can reduce the cooking time and some cooks feel that doing so promotes more even cooking— I can’t tell that pre-soaking makes much difference with this soup. Use whichever technique you prefer. If you don’t presoak, you will add roughly 30 to 40 minutes to cooking time which works for me because I chop and add vegetables while the beans are cooking.
Sweat the onions, carrots, and celery (plus chopped fennel bulb if you are using it) in your soup pan. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and heat, add vegetables and stir until all starts to turn translucent. Use medium heat setting so you don’t char the vegetables.
Add crushed or chopped garlic and brown for less than one minute.
Add the beans and enough cool water to cover the beans by just 2 inches to a large 4-quart pan. To prevent the beans from getting tough, DO NOT add tomatoes or salt at this stage. Bring beans to a boil for at least two minutes, then turn down the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. To ensure the beans cook evenly, gently stir the pot occasionally and keep an eye on the water level in the pot since the beans will absorb it as they cook. If needed add just enough water to just cover the beans in order to prevent them from drying out and scorching.
Clean and chop the zucchini, fresh green beans. Add to the beans and gently stir. Add a little more water to cover if needed. (If using canned green beans wait. Canned green beans are best added with the canned tomatoes.)
Add herbs and spices but NO salt yet. You can use any assortment of your favorite herbs and flavor blends. Add a little at a time. Taste as you go.
Continue cooking until beans are “just tender”, about 40 minutes to 1 hour. Taste test several beans. Some may cook faster than others.
Once the beans are tender, it’s safe to add the tomatoes and salt. Use minimal salt and more herbs if you are following a special diet. Gently stir all.
Add chopped greens and parsley. Fresh greens add an extra depth of complexity to this soup. Greens add loads of calcium and other nutrients! If you don’t have any grocery store greens on hand, kill two birds with one stone by foraging for wild dandelion greens from your lawn or areas that are free from chemical or pesticides. Take a knife and cut them off at the root. Wash thoroughly changing water several times. Gourmet chefs charge you big bucks for soup with wild “chicory.” Yep. Wild chicory is basically dandelion greens! If you aren’t certain just start with a scant cup of fresh chopped greens.
Altogether this soup can take roughly 1.5 hours to 2 hours from start to finish, not counting time to dig up and clean your wild dandelion. This soup is great served with warm cornbread.