Desperation Soup is Dinner When Your Fridge is Bare—or Bursting!

September 20, 2017

There was a time during my early years as a private chef and culinary instructor when I didn’t always practice what I preached.

As much as I wished my life were an endless Instagram feed of morning açai bowls, bespoke shaved carrots with pea microgreens, and relaxed afternoons reading Bon Appétit on a vintage chaise, the more I cooked for others, the less I cooked for myself.

A typical Tuesday night meant I arrived home from teaching a cooking class at 9:30 PM with the type of relief and exhaustion that comes from hours of being on your feet, talking with your hands, and making sure no one amputates an index finger on your watch.

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My fridge might have contained some scant offerings: eggs, half a box of limp arugula, the remains of a two-pound bag of now-hairy carrots, cooked white beans. It was enough to cobble together a meal without having to dig into the petrified graveyard of my freezer (which bag of peas were previously used as an ice pack?), but by the time I walked in the door, I’d be standing at the edge of a low blood sugar abyss.

So I did what I always did in these ill-prepared off hour situations—I ordered Thai food.

There came a time a few years ago when I realized that despite my vocation, my body was made up of 20 percent congealed rice noodles. It was an a-ha moment that came reluctantly, after grappling for the better part of a decade with an autoimmune disease. And it was a realization that forced me, over the course of a year, to completely overhaul my habits (and document it in a book).

It came as a surprise to everyone except me (and the Seamless Web customer service team) that cooking was a habit of mine that actually needed work. But such was reality.

To get back in the saddle of cooking-as-self-care, I committed to batch-cooking on weekends. Every Saturday, I’d go to the farmers market and then spend a few hours preparing meals for the week ahead. It’s a practice I’ve tried to keep up to this day, albiet with various degrees of execution. Sometimes the market isn’t in the cards or I only have an hour to make one simple dish. And in times like these, I know I can always fall back on a big pot of this Desperation Minestrone Soup.

Desperate times call for... big bowls of hearty, belly-warming soup. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Desperation in the kitchen comes in many forms: There is the exhaustion that will lead one to ordering take-out, and there is the desperation of having too little in the first place. This soup, which stems from the traditions of Italy’s cucina povera, speaks to both. It can account for any type of wayward vegetable scrap that’s looking too sad to be eaten on its own, and you can even use canned options instead of fresh, which, for those without electricity after a storm and only a gas stove at their disposal, might be a small point of comfort amidst other desperations.

But it also appeals to a very different type desperation, one that’s a result of the opposite problem, that of excess (and overeagerness at the market).

Hoarding runs in the family, and “Desperation Soup” is my Uncle Denny’s favorite weekly strategy for dealing with last week’s farmers market spree. He throws everything in a pot, adds some seasonings, and simmers the mixture until it becomes a luscious melting pot of united flavors—which I’m pretty sure is also how the Tuscans created their first minestrone soup (and their first ragu… and their first ribollita…).

Best of all, it only gets better over time, which means that reheating a pot will be an even quicker way to dinner than picking up the phone to order takeout. What ends up in your bowl will no doubt be comforting for your countertops and your spirit.

Recipe notes:

  • This recipe is meant to be an edible way to compost all your wayward produce. “Pantry vegetables” are the sturdy ones that last a while in the crisper drawer of your fridge. The green vegetables cook quickly, which means you should add them toward the end of the soup process. -
  • Another great addition from the garbage bowl: a Parmesan or Pecorino rind to add a rich, cheesy flavor to the broth. Next time you finish a wedge, save the rind in your freezer until it’s soup time.
  • Experiencing a different type of desperation? This soup can also be made with canned or frozen vegetables. If pre-cooked or canned, simply stir into the soup with the beans. For canned, it's best to rinse thoroughly.
  • When I’m in the mood for a little more protein, I start by browning 1/2 pound of organic chicken or turkey sausage at the beginning of this recipe.
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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Carla
  • DinnerDesperado
  • FrugalCat
  • Windischgirl
Phoebe is a writer, gluten-free chef, culinary instructor, award-winning blogger, and author of The Wellness Project. You can find her healthy comfort food and gluten-free finds on www.FeedMePhoebe.com


Carla September 22, 2017
About every two weeks I take out any sad veggies, bits of leftovers stashed in the freezer and make "Sunday Soup". It's different every time, but always delicious. This becomes lunch and often breakfast the following week. Feels good to not waste food! Whatever you call it...do it...you'll never be disappointed in the result.
DinnerDesperado September 21, 2017
Love this story! Though it is a little surreal to read - it could be an extract from a night in my life! 'Standing on the edge of a low blood sugar abyss' is such a perfect description! I'm usually doing that whilst berating myself for not sticking to my plan to batch cook and rolling my eyes at the irony of the fact that I am writing a food blog about menu planning for one person!
FrugalCat September 20, 2017
But if you make it, and it's great, you can never duplicate it! What are the chances of having that exact combo of leftovers in the fridge again?
Windischgirl September 20, 2017
Are you spying on me in my kitchen? I made a version of this--including cauliflower leaves, aquafaba, and the dregs of a jar of pesto--last night! It's going to my folks to nourish them in the days after my mom's surgery.