Dinner with My Family #1: Vegetable Barley Soup

Each week, I’ll present a low-cost meal (or a meal that demonstrates a lot of options for cutting costs) that my family eats for dinner and enjoys. Many of the recipes will be vegan or vegetarian, with options to add other ingredients for non-vegetarians.

In the past, I’ve created a lot of photo-heavy posts about preparing frugal meals and, since then, a steady flow of readers have emailed me asking for more low-cost recipes. That’s something I can certainly do, so for the time being, I’m going to have a weekly series on The Simple Dollar featuring such meals. I’ll be calling it “Dinner with My Family.”

The challenge with doing this is that in October, I switched to a (mostly) vegan diet for health reasons, the only exception to that being that on occasion (once a week at most), I can have a piece of fish with my meal. I know quite well that most of you are not vegan, so I’ll be trying to choose adaptable recipes as well, ones that can easily be transformed with the addition of a few ingredients.

Many of the recipes in my recipe box are handwritten and without source. If I can find a source for a recipe, I’ll provide it.

So, what’s on the table this week?

Vegetable barley soup and bread

Last night, we had a vegetable barley soup, accompanied with fresh bread. The soup was actually thicker than expected and wound up approaching a stew-like consistency, but it was still flavorful. Every member of our family (over the age of one) cleaned their bowls, which is pretty much all you can ask for. It is a perfect recipe for a lazy winter Sunday afternoon around the house.

This was a handwritten recipe, but it seems to be pretty similar to this recipe for “Granny’s Vegetable Barley Soup.”

What You Need
The ingredients are pretty straightforward:

1 onion, diced
1/2 head of celery (including leaves), chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
3 quarts vegetable stock (water can be a substitute, but the soup will be thinner)
1 1/4 cup barley
1 bay leaf
2 medium potatoes or one large potato, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 large can diced tomatoes (28-30 ounces)
1 1/2 cups greens (kale, collard, spinach – whatever’s on sale), chopped
1 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste

Since we already had vegetable stock on hand (here’s how to make your own), all we really needed was a visit to the produce section of our local grocery store. Our total cost for the other ingredients was $8.98. This ended up making enough soup for three meals for all four of us, reducing the cost per meal well under $1.

The bakery had an amazing sale on fresh loaves of bread straight out of the oven – $0.99. I had planned to make my own bread, which usually comes out to a slightly lower cost per loaf.

The Night Before (or Early That Day)
You’ll obviously have to do a lot of chopping. Dice the onion and chop the celery – you can store them together in a bowl. Chop the potatoes and carrots – you can store them together, too. Also, chop up the greens. In the end, you’ll have three bowls of chopped ingredients. This will make the actual preparation of the meal very simple, and you can do this the night before if you wish.

Don’t throw away your vegetable scraps. Instead, save them in a container and keep them in the freezer. When you accumulate several cups of scraps (yes, potato peels, carrot peels, the ends of carrots, all of that stuff is okay), you can make delicious vegetable stock with those scraps.

Preparing the Meal
Put the onion, the celery, and the oil together in your soup pot, then turn the heat up high. Your goal is to brown the onions a bit until they take on that wonderful caramelized look and smell.

Sauteeing celery and onions

This process will take five to ten minutes. Once the onions are looking tasty and brown, add the stock/water and the bay leaf. As the liquid is heating up, rinse off the barley, then add it to the soup.

Your goal is to get the soup to a simmer – barely boiling. You’ll want to stir it regularly.

Key point Different types of barley have different cooking times. Read the barley package you have and see how long it suggests for cooking. Subtract an hour from that, then let the soup simmer that long before proceeding to the next step. This might be fifteen minutes or it might be an hour or it might be anything in between.

Soup cooking - thicker than I expected

At the “one hour remaining” mark, add the tomatoes, the potatoes, and the carrots to the soup. You’ll now let this simmer for an hour, stirring regularly.

The picture above shows what it looks like as it nears the finish line. We threw in a bit of extra barley, so ours is a bit thicker than yours might be. Another thing to note is that the color will vary somewhat based on the color of your stock, the color of the tomatoes, and so on.

You’ll want to be preparing the bread at this time. We like crusty bread, so we tossed our bread in the oven for another ten minutes before slicing it.

Sliced bread

When the time is up, add the greens and the basil, stir them in, and let it simmer for five minutes more. Set the table, then put out the cauldron of soup for everyone to enjoy!

Vegetable barley soup and bread

Optional Ingredients
If you’re looking for non-vegan ways to alter this meal, here are some suggestions.

Ham This is a perfect soup for some diced ham. I would put the ham in when I put in the barley, to let the flavors spread throughout the soup. If you have a ham bone, don’t be afraid to drop that in there, either. This would be my preferred option.

Ground beef or ground sausage I would cook this separately, then strain it very well before adding it. Adding fatty meats to soups can often make the entire soup taste fatty.

Beef bullion If you’re adding ground beef to the soup, you could use beef stock or beef bullion instead of the vegetable stock or water. This would make more of a beef barley soup.

If you enjoyed reading this, sign up for free updates!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...

42 thoughts on “Dinner with My Family #1: Vegetable Barley Soup

  1. Cheryl says:

    I’ll be trying this. I recently read that eating barley will help your cholesterol levels. I’m trying to get mine down.

    I like to by beef on sale (sirloin, round steak, whatever is cheap, or in the 1/2 off bin). I cook it like pot roast with an onion and horseradish, then divide it up to add to soups and stews. Sometimes I also cook some lentils in the stock and mix it with the beef. Only 2-3 oz. of beef will feed all three of us when mixed with vegetables and a starchy thing.

  2. Sam says:

    Do you store the cut potatoes in water if you cut them in advance? Otherwise don’t they get all brown? Or does refrigerating them stop that from happening?

  3. cv says:

    Looks delicious!

    For non-vegans, this is the sort of soup that is even more delicious when you throw in a parmesan or other hard cheese rind while it’s simmering. It really adds depth and body to vegetable soups. Just pull out the rind at the end when you remove the bay leaf.

  4. brad says:

    Rough nutritional information of soup w/o bread(assuming 9 servings)

    Per serving:
    Calories – 291
    Protein – 7.7g
    Total Carbs – 46g
    Fat – 3.5g
    Sodium – 266g

  5. brad says:

    also, you missed a good joke opportunity with ‘barely boiling’.

  6. Interested Reader says:

    Is the bread vegan?

  7. chuck says:

    how about some before and after pics showing your weight loss under the vegan diet? would be a compelling post. might be the push i need to go vegan and get rid of this belly.

  8. zoe says:

    I make a very similar soup but with chicken stock and (optional) chicken pieces (you don’t need many). The barley makes it very filling, and delicious as well.

  9. marta says:

    @6: it should be vegan. Basic bread is just flour, water, yeast and salt.

  10. Courtney20 says:

    Sounds good; if adding ground beef or sausage I’d go a step further and rinse the browned meat in a colander before adding to the soup. The nice thing about this is that you can get the cheap ground meat (75-80% lean instead of the 93% lean). Once you’ve rinsed the meat and patted it dry with a paper towel, it’s basically the same as the more expensive leaner ground meat.

  11. Lisa says:

    Trent, I’m so glad you are posting vegan/veggie recipes! I’ll definitely be trying some of this soup, looks very hearty and amazing. Right up my alley! Thank you!

  12. Des says:

    I also really like the method of posting veggie recipes with options to add meat or cheese. Usually, it is the other way around and I find that often those recipes rely on the meat/dairy for their depth, and aren’t as good without it. This recipe stands on it’s own, I love it!

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Oh yum! I’ll have to try this one! I can’t have tomatoes or onions, but I read somewhere that you can create a good stock by pureeing carrots, celery and other veggies instead of using store-bought stock.

    Thanks for sharing!

  14. AnneKD says:

    I’ll have to sub rice or millet in for the barley due to gluten intolerance- but otherwise this looks like a keeper. I might try roasting all the veggies for 15 minutes or so first, then putting everything in the pot and let it go from there.

  15. Squirrelers says:

    Looks really good, with the fresh veggies included. What’s a really big selling point for me here is the lack of sodium. Now, sure I saw salt to taste in the directions, but that’s got to be far less than the sodium in canned or prepared soups. Overall, this looks intriguing and nutritious, especially enticing in the cold weather!

  16. Gretchen says:

    Homemade Bread can frequently contain powered/liquid milk or butter.

    But can be vegan.

  17. Adam P says:

    If you used pre-packaged veggie broth, watch out for sodium. Most of the ones I’ve seen are atrociously high!

  18. Rachel says:

    @Sam #2: If you cut potatoes before you need them, you can simply put them in a bowl of water with a bit of lemon juice–just make sure any cut potato surfaces are submerged in the lemon water. You can do this with cut apples, too, and I’ve kept them fresh and non-browned for about two days that way.

  19. lurker carl says:

    This is one of my favorite soups!

    If you intend to make enough for leftovers, be aware that barley continues to absorb liquid long after cooking. To keep leftovers from morphing into gumbo, prepare the barley several days in advance. Simmer one cup barley in six cups stock, refrigerate when done. The barley will soak up the remaining liquid prior to making the soup. Add the precooked barley to the soup when 15 minutes is remaining.

    This also keeps the first serving of soup from being too thick as well.

  20. valleycat1 says:

    We made a very similar soup a week ago, with brown mushrooms added. Yum! Perfect for a cold dreary winter’s day.

  21. valleycat1 says:

    For you non-vegans out there who like their french or sourdough bread buttered & toasted – slice the loaf lengthwise in half, then slather on a good layer of butter/margarine (or even mayo). Bake it @ 350 or so on a cookie sheet 5-10 minutes on the top oven shelf to melt the butter completely, then broil to toast. Much better than just broiling it without melting the butter into the bread beforehand.

  22. Leah says:

    mmm, I love barley soup. looks great! And thanks for the tip, Lurker Carl :-)

  23. deRuiter says:

    #3 cv, thanks for tip on the cheese rind. I see it in the discount cold cut bin from time to time and never knew what people did with it! If you make this soup with meat, make it the day before, chill over night, and all the fat rises to the top in a firm, hard layer. Remove the fat layer and place in large stockpot with equal amount of water. Heat in a pot (on low heat) until fat melts, and chill. There will be a cake of clean, firm fat on top of the dirty water. The fat is useful for soap making. To me a little bit of soup meat makes a more flavorful broth. A little meat also makes it easier to get your protein requirements. Nothing wrong with vegetarian or vegan.

  24. marta says:

    People surely tend to overestimate their protein needs. It’s very unlikely that you will suffer from protein deficiency in a First World country. Just have the adequate calories intake (no starving!), and you’ll be fine.

    Add a little meat or cheese, sure, but that needn’t be done in name of filling protein requirements. It’s very easy to get all the protein you need on a vegan diet.

  25. Mel says:

    I just wanted to add my voice to the “Yay! Thank you!” camp. I’ve had a packet of barley in the cupboard for a long, long time without knowing what to do with it (my boyfriend wanted to make a traditional Czech meal called “Black Kuba” but chickened out in the end). This looks perfect.

    I think this is also the extra push I need to get a website project I’m working on going again – thank you! :)

  26. Kathy says:

    I’m looking to cut down on meat and eat more plant based foods, so let me add my thanks for posting this!

  27. Shelley says:

    I generally put veg ‘waste’ into the compost. I’ve always read that you can’t put cooked veg into the compost, but I’m not sure why. If I use veg ‘waste’ to make stock, that’s a better use, but what should I do with the stuff I drain out of the cooked stock? Compost or trash bin?

  28. lurker carl says:

    Shelly – as long as sugars, fats, meat or meat-based stocks were not used to cook the veggies, they can go into compost. Think apple pie, veggies flavoring a beef roast, stir fry. You don’t want the sweet, grease or meat aromas attracting vermin.

  29. lurker carl says:

    Shelley, I tripped over that last e. Sorry.

  30. bookwoman says:

    Shelley, you can put cooked stuff into compost as long as you have some uncooked too. Obviously the cooked won’t have the bacterial action going that you need for compost.

  31. bookwoman says:

    Trent’s articles about his children are like a time machine for me, he is using some of the same strategies that we used with our son when he was young. He is now 20, and a college student. He is extremely frugal with money. During his last two semesters at school, he only spent $500 beyond his tuition, housing and meal plan. (We pay his health insurance and medical costs). He rarely eats off campus and takes advantage of $1 movies and free concerts on campus for entertainment. He buys his clothes at Goodwill. He made all his Christmas presents for his friends. So when you sow the seeds of frugality at an early age, it becomes a habit.

  32. Janis says:

    Since you first mentioned this soup, I’ve been looking forward to you posting the recipe. Thank you! Now I look forward to future “Dinner with My Family posts” – what a great idea.

    About different types of barley, I tend to buy hulled barley from the bulk bin. Since I don’t have package directions to refer to, I did a quick search and learned that hulled barley (considered the most nutritious form) takes a little longer to cook than pearled barley, which takes about 45 minutes to an hour to cook. Scotch barley, or pot barley, takes slightly less time to cook than pearled. Then there is quick cooking barley, which only takes about 10 minutes to cook, and which probably isn’t the best choice for this soup.

    I found a variety of cooking times for the different types of barley, probably a matter of “chewiness” preference than anything else. If anyone has anything more definitive, time-wise, please share.

  33. Michele says:

    Thanks Trent-I will look forward to these posts! I recently made this same soup with homemade beef broth from the leftover Christmas Even dinner prime rib bones. It gave the soup a depth of flavor that was wonderful for those who like the meat flavor.

  34. Cheryl says:

    I use my pressure cooker to cook barley in 20 min.

  35. Vickie says:

    Thanks for starting this series, the soup looks fantastic. ☺

  36. erb says:

    Kudos to you on going vegan. My resolution this year is to transition to veganism by the end of this year. What perfect timing for your dinner series. Thank you for the inspiration and practical tips.

  37. Vivianne says:

    If you’re not vegan, and lucky enough to have a leg of lamb, make broth from it and use for this. Lamb-barley soup is amazing!

  38. littlepitcher says:

    You can also sub thyme for basil, carrots for celery, and (if you’re lucky enough to find them on sale or grow your own) add mushrooms and/or shiitake. Reminds me–lamb date is up today at our store. Anyone else log expiration dates to get bargains?

  39. kjc says:

    I am reposting this comment, as it’s lost in the approval queue. I’ll delete the link, so this should post OK…

    I made this soup yesterday, using vegetable stock I’d made a week ago. In my opinion the soup is good, albeit bland; I wouldn’t make it again.

    If you’re looking for a truly outstanding vegetarian dish, try West African Peanut Stew. Mark Bittman has a version (he calls it soup) with chicken, but you can simply ignore the chicken. Trust me, it’s wonderful: just Google “Mark Bittman West African Peanut” and you’ll find it. There’s a link immediately below the video to the article and recipe.

  40. spaces says:

    I made this soup mostly, except I didn’t have any barley and used lentils instead. It turned out quite nice.

  41. Karla says:

    @#32 Janis
    “Then there is quick cooking barley, which only takes about 10 minutes to cook, and which probably isn’t the best choice for this soup.”

    My cupboard held quick cooking barley and it worked just fine when I made this soup over the weekend. I added it when the greens went in and it looks just like the barley grains in the picture Trent posted.

  42. Cheryl says:

    Lamb + Barley = Scotch broth, yum!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>