Who doesn’t love a good Mason jar project? (Look, if you don’t, just humour me.)
Now what if your Mason jar project could help you reduce food cost, eat healthier, use up leftovers, feed your insatiable teenager, minimize food waste, and be zero-waste friendly at the same time? Oh, AND it doubles as a last minute gift.
That sounds too good to be true, and I’ll level with you: I’m really excited about this, but I get really excited about stupid stuff like soup, so….it’s about soup. This project involves soup.
I first heard about the Everlasting Soup Pot in a proscriptive way from an article in Slate Magazine. It was by a chef, who a lot of subtle soup-making suggestions that go beyond what most of us would consider worth the effort. I was broke enough and interested enough at the time to give it a try, and I love it.
An Everlasting Soup Pot is basically a soup whose leftovers are the basis for a new soup the next day (or next meal, if you really like soup). The name is a bit of a misnomer – it will eventually thicken up too much to keep going and you have to start over – but it’s fantastic for making a delicious variety of healthy food on the cheap while using up scraps.
The basic strategy here is to start with a light, simple soup, and gradually build it up to a thick and hearty dish over several iterations. As a vegetarian, I usually start with a veggie or mushroom broth with either some vegetables that needed to be used up (soft potatoes are easily come by in this house, or a combination of protein and carby dried goods (lentils and barley are a good starter combo). Then, every time I re-heat it, I add something else: another vegetable, a new spice with a stronger flavour, another kind of bean, etc. If you eat meat, you could just as easily start with bone broth or the simmered leftovers of a holiday turkey, for example.
So how does this involve mason jars? Well, I move around a lot, frequently staying at other people’s houses when I take care of their pets, and I wanted a cheap, portable, non-perishable staple food to keep in my “to-go” backpack so I never end up in a situation where I’ve got nothing to eat in an unfamiliar part of town.
This lead to the creation of what I call Everlasting Soup Pot Starters. I pulled out some clean mason jars, popped a different flavour of bouillon cube in each one, and then had some fun adding the little leftover bits of different kinds of legumes and grains I had laying around the house, as well as some extra seasoning. Fill up the jar, pop on the lid, and you’ve got a portable (not quite instant, but still convenient) soup. As a pet sitter, I can often cheat a little because most people have leftover produce in their fridge that won’t last until they get back from vacation, and they ask me to use that up if I can.
I soon found myself using these at home (where I have to buy or pick my own vegetables, so difficult…) as well when I was tired or uninspired to cook or prep a lunch for the next day. Toss that in a pot, let it simmer for a while, and there you go. Soup. The teenager who lives in my basement certainly eats a lot of it as well – sometimes I come home to find I need to start over because he ate it all.
I mentioned that the article I first read had a lot of detailed advice, and here I’m going to break down the most important concepts, based on my own experience and modified to include the “starter” concept.
- Some beans, etc. need to cook longer than others. In general, things that need to cook longer also stand up to being repeatedly boiled better, so these make good starter components (although they will need to cook longer before you can eat the first batch of soup). Examples include split peas, black and kidney beans, and brown rice. Black beans will turn everything else black at first though!
- Things that cook more quickly (quinoa, lentils, chick peas, barley) are good starter components if you want to be able to make soup relatively quickly (a roaring boil and a good 15-25 minutes of simmering will generally cook these things thoroughly), and will also stand up reasonably well to repeated cycles of heating and cooling.
- Dehydrated vegetables, dried mushrooms, soup bases and dried broth mixes are all available at Bulk Barn, many health food stores and sometimes regular grocery stores, and can all go into starters – bring your own container (if allowed) to make this shopping zero-waste!
- You don’t need very much of something to add it to a soup. Obviously if you’re cooking for many people you’ll need a larger pot and more starting components, but I find a single 250 mL Mason jar holds enough stuff for a good starter for me.
- For additions, remember that they may also need to be heated over and over. Onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets, cabbage, kale, corn and celery all handle this pretty well. Veggies like sweet potatoes, broccoli/cauliflower, peppers, green beans, and frozen mixed veggies are not quite as robust, but will do for a few cycles.
- More delicate veggies like spinach should be added last, as should anything else that doesn’t re-heat well – some soup pastas can be heated many times and keep their shape, but most pasta will just get bigger and soggier and use up more of your broth every time, or even while it’s stored in the fridge between meals.
- Although cheese rinds can add a lot of flavour to an initial broth, in general dairy products don’t work well except at the very end of a pot. Cream, milk and cheese make good additions to the last version of the soup to make a thick, hearty chowder or stew, but don’t reheat (or freeze) very well.
It’s hard to go wrong with soup, though. Remember that. Simmer anything together long enough and it will probably make a reasonable soup. Go easy on spices until you know what you like – you can always add more, but you can’t take it out again. When I make starters, I usually make them all different and sometimes target them towards a particular ethnic cuisine: black beans and tomato soup base, crushed peppers and dried onions for Central American, or lentils, turmeric and rise for Indian. Being of mixed European descent myself, my default mix is usually something like dried onions, some kind of dried bean, and barley. Don’t worry about this too much though – soup can become anything really. If you want to make a bunch the same and experiment with different add ins that would work too.
If I’m at home or I have time, I usually start my soup by sautéing an onion and/or some garlic, celery or carrots in a bit of oil in the pot I’m going to be using, then when they are cooked I just add the contents of a starter jar and a bunch of water directly to the pot. A bit of oil generally makes a soup taste much better. Some soup bases have oil in them already though, and you can also just start with the starter and water. Usually 2-3 jars of water to one jar of starter, but it depends on how you like your soup – you can always add more later.
Bring that to a boil for a few minutes, then reduce heat and simmer until it looks done – usually when all the dried beans are soft. You can’t easily overcook soup – just don’t forget you’ve got it on the stove! You can also put everything in a crock pot and leave it overnight.
At any point, you can taste your soup and add additional seasoning or veggies. Enjoy a bowl or two of soup (sometimes I garnish with parmesan cheese or artificial bacon bits for extra variety), and then when it’s cool, pop a lid on that pot and stick it in the fridge. When you’re ready for more soup, pull it out, toss in something extra (I find potatoes and mixed veggies are good here), bring it to a boil, and repeat. You’ll probably need to add additional water and broth or seasoning as you go along, depending on how thick you made your soup to start with.
Eventually your soup will get super thick or you’ll just be sick and tired of it. When this happens, I either make a chili or stew by adding a bunch of extra veggies and seasoning, or I add a little bit of meat of some sort and use it as a dog-food enhancer (see my other article about reducing the environmental impact of pets). Thor, my dog, really likes vegan lentil soup though, for some reason. If you’re doing this, make sure there aren’t too many onions, mushrooms, hot spices or other things that might not be safe for your dog in there (there usually has to be a LOT of these things, but be careful, especially with smaller dogs). You can also freeze leftovers: stews and chillies freeze better than soups because they don’t expand as much, so they’re easier to freeze for later (don’t freeze soup in a glass container, learn from my mistakes).
So grab some jars (truly they don’t need to be Mason jars, anything with a wider mouth will work) and start combining stuff into starters. Use cute jars and these make good hostess gifts – be sure to tell the recipient about the Everlasting Soup Pot process when you give them the starter though!
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