Weekend Cooking

A Quick, Comforting Instant Pot Soup You Can Set & Forget

There's a difference between recipes that take a long time to cook and those that take a long time to prep. This one is neither.

by:
October 11, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Welcome to Set It & Forget It, a new series about all the ways we rely on our slow cookers, Instant Pots, and ovens during the colder months. Whether it’s a long braise on the stove or a quick burst in the pressure cooker, one thing’s for sure: Comfort food means comfort cooking.


In the 18 years that I spent going to public school in Fulton County, Georgia, I ate my fair share of cafeteria lunches. In fact, I hardly ever packed my own lunch, and neither did my parents, who worked full-time at a beeper store on Buford Highway. This meant that I had the cafeteria menu memorized, and knew exactly which day to fill up on breakfast (because it was mystery-meat sloppy joe day) and when to leave room (because it was grilled cheese and soup day).

At Abbotts Hill Elementary School, you had a few regular options for lunch: tuna salad, chicken nuggets, and greasy pizza. The usual. The daily entrée, however, would be something more substantial and homemade. On the rare joyous occasion, "Vegetable Beef Soup" was on the menu.

This meant a couple of things: 1) you got a styrofoam bowl of the brothy, tomatoey soup (which I'll get to in a second), but also 2) a side of the buttery grilled cheese to dunk to your heart's content. Every time I saw this soup, I ordered it because it tasted like nothing I'd ever had at home. So comforting, and so full of vegetables.

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Top Comment:
“Good morning beautiful Eric, I’m dusting out the cobwebs while tripping down memory lane here, trying to recall my school days, and what foods were on the menu. When I was younger, I’d say most of my school lunches were brought from home, and then in junior high and high school, most were from the cafeteria, fast food joints, or the catering truck that parked up the street. In grade school, breakfast was a rotation of soft boiled eggs & toast, chocolate Malt-O-Meal, oatmeal, and cold cereal. My mom reminded me several years ago, that the kindergarten me, was capable of making perfect soft boiled eggs. I’d then pack my own lunch, usually sandwiches: Egg salad, PB&J, tuna salad, meatloaf (buttered homemade bread, a thick slice of mom’s meatloaf, mustard, and pickle), and occasionally, I remember a thermos of mom’s chili, or chicken noodle soup. With the sandwiches, I always remember having potato chips, which I would insert into my sandwiches for the salty crunch - yes, even the PB&J’s. Oh, and for sure, sack lunches included things like carrot sticks, hard boiled egg, bottled fruit (apricots were my fav), pickles, chocolate chip cookies, etc. In junior high, the most memorable school meals, were probably burritos from the catering truck, and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, tater tot casserole, or shepherds pie from the cafeteria. In high school, I started going with friends to places like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, and the local drive-in. Nothing very memorable food-wise, but it was an enjoyable hour of socializing. I’d hit the cafeteria on taco days, sure, they were just your average americanized taco, but hey, they were tasty. My favorite go-to however, was a giant chicken nugget sandwich! I’d douse that patty in tabasco, add mustard and pickle, and enjoy the hell out of it. Probably though, I associate that sandwich with my friend Julie, she always made me laugh, always brightened my day, and always, she made me feel normal, like I belonged, like I wasn’t the oddball; she was a good friend to me, and I hope that I was a good friend to her. I suppose if there was one cafeteria meal that I’d like to “adult”, it’d have to be the shepherds pie, especially, on cool breezy days like today. I think I’ll try your soup this afternoon, cozy up with a new book, and forget about the world for a while. Thank you Eric, Shane - the oddball ”
— Shane L.
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A note on vegetables: There was a period when I stopped ordering the soup, even though I loved it. Back then, kids made fun of you for eating (and liking) vegetables, and I succumbed to peer pressure because I was a closeted beta bud yet to blossom into the flaming alpha homosexual I am today.

Until I met Matthew S., who loved vegetables and didn't care who knew it. Matthew S. had a soft face with kind eyes and brown hair, a sort of Timothée Chalamet (before he was Timothée Chalamet). We met one day in the cafeteria. He said to me, "I love green beans." I said to him, "I love green beans!" And the rest was history.

I loved the way he'd scarf down the vegetables on his plate each day at lunch and snap back at anyone who made fun of him for it. He protected me from the bullies at school and made me feel safe.

Maybe my love for this soup has more to do with memories of him than any particular fondness for it. Though there must be a reason why, out of everything in my past, I picked this taste memory to replicate for my adult self.

Some of these are vegetables. Photo by Bobbi Lin

After developing an Instant Pot variation this week, I can guarantee that vegetable beef soup is objectively good for myriad reasons:

  1. It's essentially a dump, set, and forget situation. Easy cooking.
  2. It's bowl food, which is a category of cuisine that inherently means easy eating (on the couch, in front of the television, with a spoon). Like a loose chili, my Instant Pot vegetable beef soup is exactly what you want to nestle into on a cool fall day after work. Maybe you're in a Snuggie, maybe you're not. As Nigella Lawson says, it's "the feeling of eating when every spoon or forkful is reassuringly the same as the last."
  3. It's full of protein—the ever useful and ubiquitous (and affordable) ground beef, which turns effortlessly soft in the Instant Pot. If you ever needed a case for why you should cook ground beef in a pressure cooker, this is it.
  4. It's full of vegetables—tomatoes (albeit canned), green beans, peas, carrots, onions, and lots of garlic. In the cafeteria version, all of this veg is mushy and from a can, but that was the charm of it. In the adult version, the vegetables are a little more sprightly, and with texture.
  5. It's also the batch cooking you want to eat over and over, which means it's a great contender for loading up into a thermos and taking to work for lunch.
  6. The nostalgia of vegetable beef soup is likely its best ingredient, but I also add a splash of soy sauce for savory depth. And I've replaced the grilled cheese with crusty bread and Parmesan (but by all means, feel free to make a grilled cheese if you like).

In researching the history of this soup, I found that no one in my present life—not my colleagues nor my friends in New York—grew up with any semblance of tomatoey vegetable broth with ground beef like I did. A part of me started to wonder, then ... did I make it up? I even found Matthew S. on Facebook (but was too chicken to send him a friend request or message him about vegetable beef soup). So instead I reached out to my elementary school friends with the question: Do you remember this?

I got a slew of responses back and it made me feel less alone in my nostalgic renderings of a dish I wasn't even sure existed. But there's nothing like group memory to help you go back in time and confirm the past.

Here's what my childhood friends had to say (reviews were mixed):

  • "The soup! It was orange-red and basically tasted like tomato juice. And there were these little green beans that were always really overcooked. And sometimes corn and peas. And potato. It looked a lot like this." —Julia, always had a good memory

  • "I don’t remember eating it, but I do remember seeing it! My memories of this dish + sloppy joes are intersecting here ... I think it was served with a roll (to sop) and canned corn?!" —Skye, doesn't have a good memory

  • "I remember NOT liking that dang soup. They would serve it with one squishy roll and the soup in my memory was mostly mushy kidney beans. It now sounds comforting, but I was not a fan of the mush way back when." —Jennifer, has since been seen eating mushy foods and seems to enjoy them, so not sure what the big deal is
The soup; only a select few remember it. Photo by Bobbi Lin
  • "I don’t remember the soup, but I do remember very soft chocolate chip cookies, ice cream, corn dogs, rectangle pizza, chicken fingers, and the fact that they tried to get us to stop talking and eat our food by playing music intermittently." —Olivia, loves walking down memory lanes

  • "I do remember the vegetable soup with ground beef. Lots of whole tomatoes and okra and green beans. All from a can, of course. And lots of beef broth. It wasn’t my favorite school lunch, but then again there was nothing about school lunches that I found desirable. Which was why I had my mom pack me a BLT everyday for three years." —Tyler, still prefers BLTs to dumb school lunches

  • "I remember and stan that sh$t." —Jen, senior vice president of Vegetable Beef Soup, Inc.

Out of curiosity, I checked the Fulton County lunch menus and learned sadly that no, vegetable beef soup is no longer served in those cafeterias.

Do you have a favorite nostalgic food from your cafeteria days? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

5 Comments

Ramona K. October 13, 2019
Use canned Rotel tomatoes in this. You won’t be sorry for that little bit of kick!!
 
Megan October 12, 2019
I love your writing and seeing Asian American representation in the food world ^_^V. It's incredible how many memories we have tied to FOOD! I haven't tried any of your recipes yet, but am looking forward to doing so!
 
DoubleNegative October 12, 2019
You have inspired me (again), Eric. I'm gonna go post my favorite IP soup right after this comment (and one more cup o'joe). Is it a coincidence that I see this on the first day that isn't 90 degrees in NOLA in six months? I think not...if I get to bust out a sweater, I also get to bust out this soup!
And oh, the fraught memories of school lunches...most days I ate a PB&J, or if I was lucky left over meatball sammies. But I guess I ate more than my share of square pizza too. In high school I stopped eating altogether so I could save my whole allowance to go to Hollywood and buy records on the weekends (but alas, I date myself). For the millions of other nostalgic LAUSD'ers out there, there is this... http://foodfashionandflow.blogspot.com/2012/06/lausd-old-school-coffee-cake.html
 
Toni T. October 11, 2019
This sounds wonderful! I actually happen to have fresh green beans in the house right now. How would you street I incorporate those if they are not frozen?
 
Shane L. October 11, 2019
Good morning beautiful Eric,

I’m dusting out the cobwebs while tripping down memory lane here, trying to recall my school days, and what foods were on the menu. When I was younger, I’d say most of my school lunches were brought from home, and then in junior high and high school, most were from the cafeteria, fast food joints, or the catering truck that parked up the street.

In grade school, breakfast was a rotation of soft boiled eggs & toast, chocolate Malt-O-Meal, oatmeal, and cold cereal. My mom reminded me several years ago, that the kindergarten me, was capable of making perfect soft boiled eggs.
I’d then pack my own lunch, usually sandwiches: Egg salad, PB&J, tuna salad, meatloaf (buttered homemade bread, a thick slice of mom’s meatloaf, mustard, and pickle), and occasionally, I remember a thermos of mom’s chili, or chicken noodle soup. With the sandwiches, I always remember having potato chips, which I would insert into my sandwiches for the salty crunch - yes, even the PB&J’s. Oh, and for sure, sack lunches included things like carrot sticks, hard boiled egg, bottled fruit (apricots were my fav), pickles, chocolate chip cookies, etc.

In junior high, the most memorable school meals, were probably burritos from the catering truck, and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, tater tot casserole, or shepherds pie from the cafeteria.

In high school, I started going with friends to places like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, and the local drive-in. Nothing very memorable food-wise, but it was an enjoyable hour of socializing.
I’d hit the cafeteria on taco days, sure, they were just your average americanized taco, but hey, they were tasty. My favorite go-to however, was a giant chicken nugget sandwich! I’d douse that patty in tabasco, add mustard and pickle, and enjoy the hell out of it. Probably though, I associate that sandwich with my friend Julie, she always made me laugh, always brightened my day, and always, she made me feel normal, like I belonged, like I wasn’t the oddball; she was a good friend to me, and I hope that I was a good friend to her.

I suppose if there was one cafeteria meal that I’d like to “adult”, it’d have to be the shepherds pie, especially, on cool breezy days like today.

I think I’ll try your soup this afternoon, cozy up with a new book, and forget about the world for a while.

Thank you Eric,

Shane - the oddball