Set It & Forget It

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.

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

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I do remember that we had vegetable soup (but no beef that I remember) with grilled cheese sandwiches every Friday. This was the alternative to the fried mystery fish and mixed vegetables. This was back when it was still very customary for those of the catholic faith to observe the no meat on Friday rule. So even if you were Southern Baptist, you still got no meat on Friday in the public schools. We all assumed the Friday vegetable soup was just a mixture of the all the vegetables leftover from the previous week and was the way cafeteria’s way to use it all! Some weeks it was better than others but usually not very tasty. ”
— Pamela G.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • DebMcKinney
  • chefrockyrd
  • Pamela Golden
    Pamela Golden
  • Amanda Davidson
    Amanda Davidson
  • Ramona Katz
    Ramona Katz
Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


DebMcKinney January 14, 2020
My elementary lunch memories from way back in the 60's was the smell wafting down the hall through the old-fashioned screen doors to the cafeteria just down the hallway from most of my classrooms. One of my favorites were always the beef tips & gravy with "whipped" potatoes, green beans & corn and those amazing fluffy homemade rolls! There would usually be a choice of 2-3 different ice cream bars we could choose from from our "sweet"! Next fav was the... yes... infamously good vegetable soup & grilled cheese day! So yummy, I always wished I could go back for another bowl & another grilled cheese. Along with that was the ice cream cup or the jello with some whipped topping! Sometimes they'd have extra cinnamon rolls left over from breakfast & allow us to have those, too! Next in line on my list of favs would have to be the spaghetti day!!! Yes, it was homemade & wonderful served with a slice of garlic bread, salad or green beans and usually a piece of their yummy homemade chocolate sheath cake or a yellow cake with icing. SO... by junior high & into high school most of the school menus stay the same for the plate lunches & I was ever so glad to continue with my favs. Those students who chose to purchase a bag of chips, corn dog or pressed together burger (with mystery beef inside) didn't know what they missing! I actually missed those comforting plate lunches when my bf always insisted on us leaving campus to go pick up food from a nearby drive-thru or convenience store... bad decision, bad bf! To wrap this saga up... I later went back after college to my old school district to teach! And even though the menus had changed a bit, too many pre-made or canned or packaged foods by then and a lot of snacky stuff on the menu, I still always ordered the veggie soup & grilled cheese on those Mondays or Fridays when it was an option!
chefrockyrd October 18, 2019
Thank you Eric with the great smile, for helping me to remember the cafeteria at my high school. It was a very long time ago. I lived in a small town in NJ and what I remember most were the cafeteria ladies that made our lunch. They stood behind the steam tables and doled out the food. That was when they used to actually cook the food. We had soup but I am sure it was just tomato. But we had a mixed veg soup at home, maybe with sausage in it. Mom used our home canned beans and tomatoes. We always had jars of canned tomatoes lined up on the cellar shelves along with a lot of peaches.
I plan on making your soup asap. It is calling to me. My brother gave me an instant pot he bought because he didn't like it and I have tried it several times with good results. But does anyone know how to get the smell out of the rubber gasket? Whatever I make in it stays with it forever. Thanks.
rox L. October 22, 2019
chefrockyrd- To eliminate the smell, I turn the lid upside down in the sink then fill the gasket area with baking soda, sprinkle with water to dampen and leave for a few hours. It reduces the smell considerably and freshens.
chefrockyrd October 22, 2019
Thanks Roxanne Lavender for the great advice as to how to get rid of the smell of food on the instant pot gasket. I will try it soon.
Eric K. October 26, 2019
+1 to rox's tip. Really needed that myself.
Alex S. October 27, 2019
I so luv you Eric. Face it, you need a NEW sealing ring or 2-3. (I just bought a 3 pack.) Unless you are meticulously clean (like a scientist) it will begin to smell? Like the things you’ve been cooking over the last six months? In my case, things with cilantro which we happen to like. However, the whole cabinet smells’ve got it.
PS. To clean the sealing ring, you MUST remove it from the lid (check the website, they concur.)
Eric K. November 10, 2019
HA. That's a great idea, Alex.
Pamela G. October 16, 2019
I also went to elementary school in Georgia but in another city south of Atlanta and in the 60’s, long before you did. I do remember that we had vegetable soup (but no beef that I remember) with grilled cheese sandwiches every Friday. This was the alternative to the fried mystery fish and mixed vegetables. This was back when it was still very customary for those of the catholic faith to observe the no meat on Friday rule. So even if you were Southern Baptist, you still got no meat on Friday in the public schools. We all assumed the Friday vegetable soup was just a mixture of the all the vegetables leftover from the previous week and was the way cafeteria’s way to use it all! Some weeks it was better than others but usually not very tasty.
Eric K. October 26, 2019
Pamela, loved reading about your GA P.S. experience. So fascinating that we lived in such a regional area that celebrated this tomato-veg situation, huh?
Amanda D. October 16, 2019
I loved that soup! And yes, I also spent some time pretending that I didn't like it (I would lie and say I just got it for the grilled cheese). Thanks for recreating it. I'll definitely give it a try!
Eric K. October 26, 2019
You know it!!
Ramona K. October 13, 2019
Use canned Rotel tomatoes in this. You won’t be sorry for that little bit of kick!!
Eric K. October 26, 2019
Great tip; sounds delish.
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!
Eric K. October 26, 2019
Thank you so much, Megan. :')
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...
Eric K. October 26, 2019
I'm so intrigued by that coffee cake! I think there's a story there. I may slip into your DMs in a sec...

In the meantime, what's your soup recipe? Please tell.
DoubleNegative October 27, 2019
Every kid that went to school in LA knows and loves that coffee cake. There are, I'm sure, many, many stories there and possibly a poem and/or song or two. And I'm sad about my soup recipe, Eric, because I did try to post it, and it told me it was being moderated, but never seemed not to like that I had no photo to post with I'll make it, take some photos and try posting Ham bone, pinto and kale soup again, once I have a few photos. :(
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?
Eric K. October 26, 2019
Hi Toni! I'd throw them in the same way I suggest adding the frozen ones (at the very end). The thing about frozen veg is that they're actually par-cooked; that's how they keep them so fresh and green and tender, even after the freeze.

Who knew?
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
Eric K. October 26, 2019
I'm like 2 weeks late. Sorry, friend.

Thank you so much for this comment; I love reading about your life, the updates, and such. My main question, though: What is Malt-O-Meal??
Shane L. October 26, 2019
Good morning Eric,
I always appreciate your replies, while not expected, they are a drop of sunshine in my otherwise blasé days.

Malt-O-Meal is simply a hot breakfast cereal, akin to Cream of Wheat. It was, for textural reasons, preferred by the young me. Of course, it wasn't fantastic (a bit of a novelty item really). With the right amount of butter, however, I found it quite enjoyable.

I hope your day is a good one,

Eric K. November 10, 2019
As with most things in life, butter makes it manageable.