Guest Post: Harriet Bell’s Mom’s Vegetable Soup

When I pushed opened the front door coming home from school on winter Friday afternoons, two aromas always greeted me: lemon-scented furniture polish and my mother’s homemade vegetable soup. The soup remains the dish I still crave since my mom dictated it to me almost 50 years ago, although I’ve done endless riffs on it. It’s a hearty, classic, put-everything-in-the-pot-and-do-something-else-while-it-cooks approach.

Sally Schneider / Improvised Life

Over the years, I’ve figured out some basic principles that ensure a great soup if you don’t have all the ingredients in my rough recipe, below:

  • The yield depends on the size of the pot and the amount of vegetables used. The more vegetables with water to cover, the more soup you’ll get. As a baseline, I use a 6 -8 quart dutch oven.
  • Avoid using too much of one particular vegetable. Four carrots and 3 celery ribs are fine, but not six carrots and no celery.
  • No onions? Sure, add those 2 leeks or shallots in the vegetable drawer.
  • With the exception of some shredded green cabbage, avoid overpowering cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Bell peppers won’t work either.
  • I add a bunch of parsley tied up with kitchen twine to the pot and discard it when the soup is done. Maybe a few stems of dill or 2 bay leaves, but no other herbs.
  • Frozen vegetables, such as peas or corn kernels, can be added during the last half hour of cooking.
  • I usually make this soup with meaty beef bones, but recently tried it with two chicken carcasses from the freezer. Cooking time will vary according to what form of meat you use, about 2 to 3 hours.
  • Most soup recipes tell cooks to boil the beef bones in water and then use a skimmer to remove the surface scum.  In Vietnam, cooks taught me to cover the beef bones with water and bring them to a boil. When the scum rises to the surface, discard the cooking water, rinse the meat and bones, and cover the meat with fresh water. You may still need to skim but way less.
  •  Instead of the too-salty kosher vegetable soup mix my mother used that had legumes to thicken the soup, I throw in a handful or two of farro, split peas, or lentils.
  • As the soup cooks, add water to bring the level up as necessary. Toward the end of cooking time, taste before you add more water, letting it cook until just the right degree of rich flavor.
  • This soup gets better each time it’s reheated. In my family, we like our soup hot, really hot.

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The soup comes with two bonuses: it freezes beautifully so can be made ahead and stored for last minute meals…

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…and containers of the soup make a welcome gift, for which you will get back a lot of gratitude and possibly, a thank you note written on the bag of returned containers.

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Harriet’s Mom’s Hearty Vegetable Soup

This is my favorite rough iteration of my mom’s soup.

Put 3 to 4 pounds meaty beef bones, such as neck and short ribs (flanken) —a few marrow bones are great too— in a large pot.  Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Once the scum rises to the surface, remove the bones to a colander and rinse.  Discard the dirty water, refill the pot, add the bones and meat, and bring to a boil.

While waiting for the water to boil, prep the vegetables. If additional scum rises to the top, remove it with a skimmer.  Chop 2 to 3 medium onions, 3 to 4 carrots, 3 to 4 celery stalks, 1 to 2 parsnips, and a bunch of mushrooms. Peel and chop 2 Russet and 2 sweet potatoes. Shred a wedge of cabbage.  Top and tail 1 or 2 handfuls of green beans.  

Stir in the vegetables, a bunch of parsley, and one 8-ounce can tomato sauce OR about 2 tablespoons tomato paste. Stir in at least a cup of barley, farro, lentils, or split peas, or a combination.

Once the soup comes to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally and skimming if necessary.  The soup should barely burble. As it cooks down, add more water to just cover the meat and vegetables; the soup should be laden with vegetables, but not stew-y.  During the last 30 minutes, add any frozen vegetables. When it tastes like the best vegetable soup you’ve ever eaten, discard the parsley. Remove the meat from the bones and return to the pot. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot. Really hot.

No worries if there’s a fat on the top. It’s delicious and adds richness, but if you want to remove some, simply chill the soup and you can easily lift off as much of the hardened fat as you wish.

—Harriet Bell

AND, if you want to take a crack at my mom’s Chicken Soup, here’s the recipe she dictated me YEARS ago:

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4 Responses to Guest Post: Harriet Bell’s Mom’s Vegetable Soup

  1. Helen S. 12.01.2017 at 11:13am #

    My Mom made a similar soup with many more beans in the recipe. In fact, one time we counted 38 various ingredients. Mom cooked the soup until a wooden spoon could stand upright in it. Then she would call a friend to share about 1/3 of the mixture, as she needed to add more water to be able to serve it. She froze portions that we were able to eat at least once per week for a month.We had a large family of ten to feed.

  2. Paul Money 12.02.2017 at 7:06am #

    From my mother’s wartime recipe book.
    No 86. PEA SOUP.
    Take one pea to one gallon of water. Boil continuously for 24 hours. Strain and serve.
    This is for thick soup. For thin soup, omit the pea.

  3. Sally Schneider 12.03.2017 at 11:49pm #

    Soup concentrate before canned! Notice that Harriet didn’t say how many her rough recipe feeds? The answer is simply A LOT, depending….

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