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Frugal soup

(post, Harriet Fasenfest)

I must write about frugality today. I must write about cooking and how it relates to frugality. I am writing about chicken necks and backs and about produce at the farmers' market that is going “downhill” and how you can turn all of it to good use. I must write about how barley, oats, or beans added to the soup that you made with chicken necks and backs, along with the limp carrots they sold, or gave you, at the market, can make good eating.   

Yes, I know we must know something about cooking before we can cook well and cheaply, but how much? Is it really a matter of income and education, or about inclination?  

I'm sorry, but I do wonder when I read about an unemployed man who thought his only choices were canned soup for $1.09 at the food bank or the 89-cent can across town.  

I don't want to be dismissive, but he probably had a kitchen. He probably had pots and pans. Which made me think that part of the solution in the fight for food security is simply cooking.  

What I know is that for less than $5 (less yet if you are not going organic), you can make a pot of soup, quarts and quarts of soup, enough for a family of four with more the next day. I know you can thicken clear stock (and the sides of your belly) with oats, barley, or beans, or a combination thereof.   

I’m not discussing recipes here (OK, just one), but rather a lifestyle. I am wondering when we stopped cooking and whether we are teaching our children. It may well be time to hammer home the simple truth that home cooking offers thrifty living (which is a point that should not be lost on anyone these days), if not for our pocketbooks, then for our planet. This is not a new logic. 

My parents were immigrants. My father was a tailor, my mother a stay-at-home mom. My mother cooked all — and I mean all — of our meals at home. I think we went out to eat once or twice a year for Chinese food. Otherwise, it was baked potatoes every night for dinner just in case the other side dishes did not fill our bellies. 

A baked potato with a little butter and salt and pepper is a nice meal. Served with cottage cheese, it starts to become a balanced one. Add a little chopped parsley or some creamed spinach or dandelion leaves, and you're well on your way to eating like a king or queen.  

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Ingredients for soup."]

Really, it could be as simple as that. I know all this, because my mother taught me. She knew it because she had to. Cooking day in and day out wasn't stylish. It was pragmatic. 

I may do it for different reasons, but it could still not be more relevant. Particularly since our kids are eating ramen at college (10 packs for a buck is a deal if you want high blood pressure real early in life — check out the sodium in that stuff), or burgers, fries, tacos, pizza, or anything else they offer on the one-dollar crappy-meal menu.  

Kids (and I mean anyone under 30), do me a favor: Collect your dollars and buy some flour and a little yeast and make a dough. Collect your dollars and make some tomato sauce and buy a brick of cheese and then get together and make some pizza — lots of pizza. Make some soup, bake some potatoes, cook some chili. Just cook. 

Would someone just teach the kids and the parents to cook?

I’m sorry, but I’m a little annoyed at the disempowerment that is occurring in our culture. What has stripped us of the very simple truth that cooking at home can be so much cheaper and better for you than anything you can buy? 

Yes, we are busy, tired, and overwhelmed, but it's more than that. I would like to blame it all on the corporations (oh, you know I would), but on this one I think there are wagging fingers to go around. 

Sorry, I’m just trying to keep it real or, at the very least, a little more honest. Perhaps I should shut up and just offer a recipe: the soup my mom taught me how to make, plain and simple. Jewish penicillin. Good for what ails you. Rugged, simple, and thrifty. Enjoy.

h4. Recipe: Get to Cooking Chicken Soup

This soup serves a family of four or five heartily for one good meal. It costs $5 or less to make.  

You'll need three chicken backs (you could use necks, too; wings have gotten crazy expensive, although I still can't figure out why). When we still had butcher shops, you could occasionally get the backs for free if they knew you were cooking on a budget, but these days you can find them for $1 a pound or less. They should smell fresh. Sometimes they will be frozen, which is fine; you can throw them in the pot that way. It just might take longer for the soup to come to a boil. Put them in a big stockpot and cover with at least four quarts or more of water. You are looking for flavor here, not meat-eating.    

Throw in a few carrots, an onion (whole or cut in wedges, skin on or off — really), one or two celery stalks, a parsnip, some garlic cloves (skin on or off, whole or crushed), some salt, and some peppercorns. If you have a bay leaf or fresh parsley, throw that in as well. You could go to the farmers' market and ask if they have produce that is a little the worse for wear. I’m not talking moldy, but carrots or celery that is a little limp will be fine for a soup. Really.  

Let it all come to a boil and lower the temperature and let it simmer. One hour, two hours, three hours. Slow and long; by one hour, it will start putting out great fragrances. Let the broth cool. Strain and chill it if you want. At the very least, fish out the necks and backs with a long-handled strainer along with the cooked-down vegetables. I strip the meat off the necks and backs and add it back to the soup. Sometimes I leave the vegetables whole, but they are pretty soft by now. Generally I mash them down (except the peppercorns and bay leaf). If I left on the onion or garlic peels, I discard them off now, and purée the onions and garlic with the vegetables.  

I either add the vegetables back to the stock now or after I let the stock chill. If you let the stock chill overnight after straining it, the chicken fat will come to the top and you can skim it off. If you are eating on a budget, however, you might want that good chicken fat in your soup. In the real world of good and cheap eating, fat is your friend. Calories are not the problem; fat is not the problem. Empty calories and nasty fats are. Chicken fat is not nasty. Hydrogenated fat in Oreos is, in my opinion, nasty fat. 

Skimmed or not, bring the chicken soup back to a boil and throw in a handful (maybe half a cup to a cup) of oats or barley. Lower the heat and let it simmer for another hour or so. Taste it from time to time. Add more salt or pepper if you want. If you have some canned beans, you can throw them in, but previously soaked and cooked beans would be better yet. Throw them in the soup towards the end if they have been previously cooked; if not, and if you have only soaked them, add them with the barley or oats to cook for an hour or so. Split peas can be added without soaking or precooking. They cook in a flash — maybe 30 minutes.   

Add back the puréed or diced vegetables from the cooking stock and a little fresh vegetables if you want. I added some julienned kale from the garden. You don't need much or even any, but it gives a nice taste, and greens are always good for you.  

With very little money and a little bit of time, you can make a very hearty soup that you can enjoy for days.

h4. Costs

With a little give and take on the prices, this soup, with your personal variations, should not be more than $5. Made in batches and frozen, it's a good way to tame the wolf. 

|3 chicken backs from Whole Foods ($1/lb.)||$2| 
|3 small organic carrots  $.99/lb.||39¢| 
|2 organic celery stalks $1.29/bunch||32¢|
|1 organic parsnip (optional) $2.69/lb.||54¢|
|2 garlic cloves (I grew mine) but would cost||10¢|
|1 onion (on sale at Albertson’s that week) $.49/lb.||25¢|
|1 bay leaf, salt, black pepper||10¢|
|1/2 cup organic pearl barley  $1.79/lb.||35¢|
|2 cups white beans||75¢|
|Total Cost||$4.80|

reference-image, l