Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Frugal soup

Cook again

December 15, 2010

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.

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.

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.


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/bunch32¢
1 organic parsnip (optional) $2.69/lb.54¢
2 garlic cloves (I grew mine) but would cost10¢
1 onion (on sale at Albertson’s that week) $.49/lb.25¢
1 bay leaf, salt, black pepper10¢
1/2 cup organic pearl barley $1.79/lb.35¢
2 cups white beans75¢
Total Cost$4.80
There are 28 comments on this item
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1. by oregon foodie on Dec 15, 2010 at 11:08 AM PST

I keep a soup bag in the freezer and add vegetable trimmings (carrot, celery and onion trimmings and ends, chicken necks, mushrooms that dried out because I kept them too long). When I roast a chicken for dinner (which is often, in the winter)the chicken carcass and pan drippings go in the bag, too. Then when I have time and want to heat up the kitchen, I make a pot of stock. It’s always a little different but always yummy.

2. by karen tsang on Dec 15, 2010 at 11:21 AM PST

That is fantastic. I would like to add a couple of points:

Every time I “clean” a veggie -- take a skin off an onion or a garlic clove, cut the ends off of celery, take the greens off of my leeks and, best, take the ends off of wild mushrooms (or find some dessicated button ones lost and forgotten in the back of the fridge), I put the “scraps” in a ziplock bag in the freezer. I just keep adding them in. Ditto rejected parsnip fries, or whatever. We freeze the carcasses from our chickens, after eating them too. When I have enough (more or less), I cook it up as above (more or less), adding the salt and seasoning and carrots. FREE BROTH!

Also, I do skim the fat and freeze the stock in muffin tins so that I have “pucks” of the broth to add to recipes that require it, as well as to have more soup available for cold days like today. Think I’ll dig in my freezer for some now!

Great posting, thanks for the clarity.

3. by Fasenfest on Dec 15, 2010 at 6:59 PM PST

Great ideas both. The greatest part being the plain and frugal logic of it all. I generally compost all my trimmings but I like this idea. Thanks.


4. by CJMcD on Dec 16, 2010 at 6:50 AM PST

I share Harriet’s sentiment about “just cook”. We eat a lot of soup in this household, partly because of frugality, partly nutrition and finally, conveneince. It’s great to know there’s a big pot of soup waiting at home when your cold and tired. Bake a loaf of bread or rewarm one baked previously. Add a salad if you are inclined and you have not just a healthy meal, but a feast.

5. by Kathryn H on Dec 16, 2010 at 12:58 PM PST

I had to teach a 13yr-old how to scrub a potato the other day--and this was a child whose parents both cook from scratch on a regular basis. They think their kids are “too busy” to help in the kitchen and garden. So sad!

6. by CJMcD on Dec 16, 2010 at 3:55 PM PST

@Kathryn H-

How are those parents preparing that child for adulthood if they wait until they are grown? Scrubbing potatoes was a job given to the 6 or 7 year olds in oyr house (with a good checking over from me when they weren’t looking).

7. by karen tsang on Dec 16, 2010 at 4:04 PM PST

@Kathryn & @CJMcD

The great news is that, despite the parents’ idea that their kids don’t have time to cook, their modeling home cooking will influence their kids immensely.

My sister has a low tolerance for chaos, so pretty much always cooked alone for her family of 4 kids and husband. Her kids are now grown, one has a couple of kids, and all cook very nicely as adults.

I mix it up. My small children love to cook with me, I struggle with the chaos, but love to share. I just know, though, that like with languages, the body learns even without the practical experiences.

That lucky kid might go home and volunteer to wash the potatoes next time ...

8. by Fasenfest on Dec 16, 2010 at 4:45 PM PST

I generally agree that even if you don’t cook with them, your kids might pick up the the habit. The only problem is, seeing and doing are very different. Keeping the magic and work of cooking behind closed doors might keep the kitchen clean (or cleaner) but it doesn’t give them the chops they need. Still, delicious smells wafting from a kitchen, and meals at the table go a long way to entice them to give it a go once their out on their own.

9. by Jen on Dec 17, 2010 at 6:08 AM PST

Thanks for the great recipe. I grew up knowing my mom could roast a chicken one day & use the bones and some spices the next day to make soup, but other than water & bones I had no idea how to make the magic happen on my own. And when you don’t know the secrets, it does seem like magic.

10. by Leigh Slingluff on Dec 17, 2010 at 7:34 AM PST

I made split pea soup for two of us and it was under $3 and we didn’t even eat it all in one sitting. Including bread.

11. by Broken Gooding on Dec 17, 2010 at 7:36 AM PST

Harriet, you are a woman after my own heart:)Thanks for pointing out one of the MANY issues for folks who are not tuned into healthy nutritious cooking. I love soup and make it all the time. My sons may choose not to eat it. Sad for them.

Soup on!

12. by Fasenfest on Dec 17, 2010 at 8:22 AM PST

Oh yeah, split pea soup. That’s a real money saver. With a little cornbread.....shut up! (as the kids like to say).

13. by Patty Hicks on Dec 17, 2010 at 8:34 AM PST

Just found you and want you to know I loved hearing another singing wisdom’s song of common sense and frugality. I loved the bit of heartfelt history woven into the why you do what you do too. I grew up in the kitchen though my mother was not the best cook in the house (my dad was) I did learn a lot from her about frugality. Thank you for the beautiful recipe too.

14. by Amber Pixie on Dec 17, 2010 at 8:42 AM PST

Thanks for such a down-to-earth and user-friendly article about HOW TO EAT...something that is not taught enough!

I linked you over at my blog, Swamp Pixie Herbal. You rock!

15. by Chris Musser on Dec 17, 2010 at 8:57 AM PST

Soup is one of the things I love about cooking during the cold months. It’s not only economical, but for me, a very lazy way to turn leftovers into dinner, fast. This week, I had leftover roast chicken, steamed rice, breakfast potatoes, steamed broccoli. I started stock with chicken carcass in the morning, then chicken & rice soup and cheddar-bacon chowder with broccoli for dinner that night (daughter doesn’t like potatoes, so see gets chicken & rice)...and lunches the next day and the next. Between the bit of chopping and heating, it took me maybe 30 minutes to make two soups? Oh, and because broccoli overcooks so easily, we just added it to our bowls and poured the hot soup on top.

16. by Fasenfest on Dec 17, 2010 at 9:26 AM PST

Hey Patty and Pixie,

Welcome aboard. YOU ROCK, WE ROCK, our mothers and fathers rocked. Let us sing praises for getting in the kitchen, for being frugal and for not getting so very complicated about the thing we are really after -- a nice warm bowl or plate of home cooking at the end of the day (with friends and family if we are lucky). All we are give soup a chance. (sorry, I’m a nerd).

17. by Susan on Dec 17, 2010 at 4:09 PM PST

I didn’t teach my daughter to cook, but she credits me with teaching her how things should taste. She grew up eating homemade meals and wasn’t willing to give that up in college. She’s in grad school and now cooks everything herself - including homemade bread, yogurt, salad dressings and dried beans. She’s the most frugal person I know. Learning to eat well and expect good food can lead to learning to cook.

18. by Kathryn H on Dec 17, 2010 at 5:51 PM PST

@Susan, even though my daughter (and son) both always helped in the kitchen, she too went to college with a minimal interest in cooking (making music was much more appealing!). I think by the end of her first week of cafeteria food she was ready and willing to cook and has become quite proficient in the kitchen in the past three years!

And, the teen that learned to scrub a potato last week? She stopped over after school today to see if I could teach her how to bake bread over winter break! The fun is just beginning!

19. by Fasenfest on Dec 18, 2010 at 7:31 AM PST

I write a lot about my mother and her cooking in my book. I write about the way, climbing up the stairs to our top-floor apartment as a child, I would guess, by the smells wafting through the halls, what my mother was making for dinner. I never doubted the smells were coming from our home cause they almost always were. I write about how those smells gave me a sense of comfort, not only because I was hungry but because of the security they supplied. We should never underestimate the value the dinner meal offers to a child.

I understand the many reason we have generally given up cooking. I try and write about the complexity of issues that confront us all -- politically, socially, economically and environmentally. Really, I understand the challenges and opportunities of our lives. I also know that despite the romantic posturing I do, it can feel like a lot of work. I mean every night, every freak’n night my mother made dinner for her family (i’m hardly that good). And when she comes to visit me in summer for a few months, she still asks me “What you gonna cook tonight?”, as if she knows I’m gonna cook.

Sometimes it bugs me cause I want to be the boss in my home (she-83, me-57). And because there is an assumption based on gender that I want to recoil against if only on principle. Sometimes, cause I’m still a brat, I say to her “I don’t know, what are YOU gonna cook?” At that point she just looks at me with mommy eyes (you mommies know what I’m talking about) and says, out of my way, I’ll show you how it’s done. And she does. Frankly, at 83 she can still put me to shame. Girlfriend takes care of business and I, like Susan, credit most of my desire to be in the kitchen to her. I have learned cooking and the power of mommy eyes, from her.

20. by Katherine Deumling on Dec 19, 2010 at 7:06 PM PST

Late to this post. . . thanks so much Harriet! Just cook, cook, cook!

21. by Johanna Greenberg on Dec 24, 2010 at 7:33 AM PST

I appreciate you article. Yesterday I was directed by a friend to an article called “Eat no Evil” by Alan Richman. It was an involved article about eating ethically and how “hard” it is. With all respect to Mr. Richman, whose article is well written and interesting, I disagree with his take home points and your article here illustrates why. It isn’t really that hard. Additionally, cooking at home really is that good. Thanks for the article.


22. by Fasenfest on Dec 24, 2010 at 9:21 AM PST

I’m flattered. I read his piece as well. I admit, it is occasionally a challenge to separate out the good from the goodish, the hype from the real and the fancy foods of vogue from the salt-of-the earth fundamentals taught in our grandparent’s kitchen.

In many ways it is precisely our abdication of basic cooking that has made the notion of ethical eating so complex. If we are not home to witness and practice the simple ease of it all, how can we defend it? If we leave all our cooking to the “professionals”, industry, academics, madison avenue, writers (myself included), and the new breed of groovy grocery stores to interpret and supply, why would we not get so confused?

In the end I think the demystification of ethical eating will be found in our willingness to reconsider our lifestyles. Yes, the issues can appear complex but we cannot dismiss the fact that plain and simple cooking with plain, “ethical” and simple ingredients, has been both co-opted and confused because we, in no small measure, have allowed it.

23. by Debbie on Dec 27, 2010 at 5:55 PM PST

I appreciate your article also. A side bennifit I found of cooking, is my kids came into the kitchen. Even if I don’t have them do something right then, they talk. So much of life is taught and talked of and vaules are passed down in the kitchen while sampleing the soup. Thanks for encouragement Harriet, and thanks all for the delightful discussion.

24. by karen tsang on Dec 27, 2010 at 10:06 PM PST

What an amazing conversation this is turning into! I love every comment ... and have to find my way over to this Richman article.

Interesting how many people talk of their mothers in the kitchen. My mom has a couple of recipes that are good, a lasagna comes to mind, but mostly she cooked to save money and feed four kids. She smoked so much she had little taste buds, and her mother had been quite the Martha Stewart of her time, everything turned out just so despite her working full time well into her 70s.

Of course my mother could bake, and bake we did, right along side of her. Early on she made bread and later mostly cookies, squares and pies. I made the cakes ... I couldn’t roll pastry to save my life.

But from the time I was 12, I couldn’t take the overcooked veggies, the flavourless meats, the lacklustre table. I took over much of the cooking ... aside from the roast on Sundays. This also got me out of dish duty which, when there were four kids and a dad too, was considerable drudgery.

My other grandmother was a real health nut: dark, grainy breads, excellent cheese, apples chosen with care, cherries from the great bing tree out back.

I think that these three women equally inspired me to be fearless in the kitchen, and my stomach’s preference forced me to keep things simple and clean.

My mother hates soups, would only open a can of Campbells, mushroom or tomato, for us. She still says she can’t see the point. I, on the other hand, cannot bear the store bought, even the broths make me gag, and will be endlessly grateful for the countless women out there, women I shall never know, who’s recipes for broths I have followed until I could figure out my own.

Thanks Harriet. It is these articles that make me love food and the world and have some hope, in a time when it seems hard to have.

25. by Fasenfest on Dec 28, 2010 at 6:53 AM PST

This thread IS amazing. But here is something I wanted to share. Let’s call it a perfect irony.

For the past year and a half, my eldest son and his girlfriend (30 and 24 respectively) have been living with my husband and I. Despite all my urgings, skills, big talk and householding efforts, I cannot get either of them to cook a lick (well my son can cook but wont). Yes, there is a backdrop to this story (I write about it) but OMG, the level of culinary cluelessness in his girlfriend is amazing to me. Once, in a hopeful conversation about making your own granola, she asked me “how they get them marshmallows so hard in that cereal” (we all know which cereal she was speaking of). REALLY? I just held my head in my hands and sighed.

For whatever reason (let us call it love) she calls the shots in the kitchen. But she is the product of Hamburger Helper and Pillsbury Cookie Dough and absolutely nothing I say will encourage her (or him) to cook at all let alone cook from scratch. And so they use what little money they have to eat out at fast food places unless I offer them a meal.

My point in sharing this is A) Truth is stranger than fiction, B) I would hate to appear holier than thou and C) It’s freak’n nuts but true. I mean their room is littered with candy wrappers and the other days she offered me a bite of a Payday candy bar before Xmas Dinner with the suggestion that it was “good for you”. Okay, peanuts are good for you but REALLY? Health food it is not. And before dinner? My dinner? Oh for goodness sake. So while I understand how cooking from scratch can be cheap, healthful and transmitted from one generation to another, sometimes, as it was for her, it misses a generation and is lost to the lure and challenges of modernity.

According to her, her grandmother cooked -- all the time, from her garden, in the country, in TN. She tells me stories of the farm and of her grandfather who raised cattle. She tells me stories of riding bareback on the milker, of running through corn fields, of swimming in the creek and of the clanging of jars in the hot summer preserving kitchen of her “Nanna”. But slowly the cattle was sold off (too hard to make a living) and the children (her mom) moved on. Slowly the big meals and hot country kitchens of her memory were substituted by the easy cooking of industry.

I never underestimate the challenges and history of this transition. It happened all across America -- the move from rural to urban living; the move from cooking from scratch to easy meals for busy working people (and in her case a single working mother). Certainly this is the story of many women and men who once lived a life that I, and so many others, are quick to be nostalgic about even though we have never faced off with the difficulties or the heartbreak of its demise (she tells me selling off the cattle killed her grandpa).

So while I keep hoping the spirit of her grandmother will resurrect in her, the more hopeful scenario is that my son will finally take over in the kitchen because he must be getting tired of Wendy’s by now (I mean the dude knew the qualities of a well made croissant at five years old). Until then, well, I’ll keep making that chicken soup in hopes it challenging the palates, lives and continually diminishing lure (and promise) of industry.

26. by dre davey on Jan 19, 2011 at 1:12 PM PST

How is it I am just finding Harriet! I have been on this food mission for 3 years now and am just finding her! I cant find anywhere she is speaking and would love to hear her talk. Any suggestions on where to look or if any of you know of her speaking somewhere local soon please share!

27. by Fasenfest on Jan 19, 2011 at 1:38 PM PST

Heck Dre,

Anyone who knows me will tell you to be careful for what you wish for cause I never shut up about all this. Still, I’m flattered. I responded to your fridge note but fact is, I don’t, or haven’t, spoken publicly other than on my book tour. I am hoping that some sort of Householding movement forms but for now my life is a behind the scenes affair (which is good given the work it takes.) But thanks much. Just leave you digits on the fridge notes and we can talk.

28. by anonymous on Dec 13, 2011 at 10:56 AM PST

Recently unemployed by choice, money isn’t everything if the stress will kill you. I’ve cooked for more than 20 years, I can say I’m cooking probably more like my grandparents. But with a freezer. In my freezer you’ll find a ziploc bag with veggies bits, skins, peels, pulp and seeds from squash. You name it, I’ll save it for stock. Also int he freezer you’ll find small amounts of things we didn’t finish, rice, mashed potato, refried beans, chopped onion, bell peppers and pasta sauce. My husband is surprised to enjoy the meals I make for dinner with leftovers for lunch. When I worked our grocery bill was about $600 a month, not I’m looking at $200 a month. I honestly can say I didn’t learn to cook from my mom or grandmother. Soups are important part of our weekly menu, I have at least 3-4 different soups in the freezer, they make great dinner with bread or lunch with crackers. I was interested in feeding us well and knowing where are food was coming from. I’m excited to get back to work and keep our food cost low, I know I can do it. I hope to find a job where I can talk about the food I make and grow.

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