Frugal Soups and Stews: Great Solutions for Busy Weekends

Many weekends – like this upcoming one, for instance – our family is quite busy. We have guests over. We go on family excursions to places like the Science Center of Iowa. We shop for groceries. We go to club meetings. We go to church. We play for hours with the kids. We get caught up on housework – and on our reading. We play a few family games.

Sometimes, I’ll put aside time to prepare a really special meal, but many weekends, we look for ways to get a healthy and inexpensive meal on the table quickly. Even better are meals that are conveniently eaten by guests whenever they arrive.

Our solution, often, is a big pot of soup or a stew. Here are some of the tactics we use to keep guests happy and also tantalize our taste buds with a convenient, tasty, and healthy meal that’s also very inexpensive.

If there’s an opportunity, I’ll make stock during the week. Stock is really easy to make. All you have to do is roast a chicken or a bone-in pot roast in the oven. This just requires a roasting pan – put some salt and pepper on the meat, put it in the pan, put it in the oven at 350 F, and check the temperature after an hour or so and keep it cooking until it’s appropriately heated. Enjoy that meat for supper. Then, take the bones, put them in a crock pot, add a few leftover vegetables and any other vegetables you find tasty, toss in a handful of peppercorns, and turn the crock pot on low before you go to bed. The next morning, just strain off the liquid and save that liquid in a jug, tossing everything else. Voila! You have homemade beef or chicken stock! If you’re a vegetarian and prefer vegetable stock, just do the same thing without the animal bones – put leftover vegetables and any others you like for flavor into a crock pot, cover with water, cook on low overnight, then strain and save the liquid.

In my opinion, stock is the best frugal meal ingredient there is. You turn what would otherwise be thrown away into an incredibly flavored liquid that forms the basis for some absolutely mind-blowing soups that weekend – and all it costs is water, a couple minutes of effort, and maybe a dime or two of electricity.

I also cook extra meat on Thursday night. If I have chicken stock on hand and want to make a chicken-based soup, I’ll make some sort of chicken meal on Thursday night and make plenty of meat so I can have a couple of pounds of leftovers. The same goes for beef – I’ll cook extra of whatever beef we use, whether it’s hamburger, steak, or roast. The same goes for vegetables – if I have vegetable stock, I’ll make a very vegetable heavy meal and save the leftover vegetables from the meal.

On Saturday or Sunday, I’ll prepare the stew or soup in the morning. There are countless soup, stew, chili, gumbo, etc. recipes out there – find one you like and just remember the ingredients. Add the ingredients to the crock pot, then turn it on low and just let it simmer all day long.

Here’s the great part about doing it this way: whenever your activities allow you to eat – or whenever guests arrive – you have a bowl of delicious soup/stew/chili/gumbo waiting for them.

Even better, since you’re utilizing the leftovers and remnants of meals made earlier in the week, the soup is pretty cheap. It’s also incredibly tasty, especially if you utilize a stock that you made earlier in the week.

Can’t wait to get started on doing this? Here are five of my favorite soup/stew/chili/gumbo recipes.

Beef Stew
2 lbs. stew meat, cooked
2 cups beef stock (or water)
1 1/2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic (peeled, of course)
1 onion, sliced
4 carrots, sliced
4 celery stalks, sliced
2 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. paprika
2 tsp. corn starch

Put everything but the corn starch in the crock pot and turn it on low. Sometime in the hour before you expect people to begin eating, add the corn starch and stir it in thoroughly to gently thicken the stew.

Chicken Noodle Soup
2 lbs. chicken, cooked (mix of white and dark meat)
16 to 24 oz. egg noodles, uncooked
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 small potato, diced
Enough chicken stock and water to cover the ingredients – if you don’t have stock, add four chicken bullion cubes

Put it all in the crock pot on low.

White Chili
2 lbs. cooked chicken breast, cubed
2 cans great northern beans, rinsed
1 whole white onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
1 cup frozen corn (optional)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
2 chiles (or 1 can mild chiles)
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1 tbsp. ground pepper
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 lime
3 cups chicken stock or water – for every cup of water used, add a bullion cube

As before, combine everything and put it in the crock pot on low.

Chicken Sausage Gumbo
3 lbs cooked chicken
2 cups flour
1 onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock or water – for every cup of water used, add a bullion cube
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. ground pepper
1 tbsp. cayenne pepper

Add these all to the crock pot and turn it on low.

Vegetable Soup
4 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water
2 quarts water
2 bay leaves
3 carrots, sliced
3 celery stalks, sliced
8 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small onion, sliced
1 large red pepper, chopped
1 leek, sliced
5 mushrooms, sliced
1 scallion, sliced
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/8 tsp. salt

Add these all to the crock pot and turn it on low.

Good luck!

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  1. Johanna says:

    Isn’t cooking vegetable stock overnight a waste of energy? I’ve read that vegetables give up all the flavor they’re going to give in about 20-30 minutes, so cooking the stock longer than that doesn’t improve it at all. But I admit I haven’t tested this out myself.

  2. Molly says:

    I also recommend a quick bread – like 4 ingredient Irish soda bread – to go with homemade soup/stew.

  3. wisnjc says:

    Do I need to add water to make the meat stock? The vegetable stock specifies adding water, so I think I would need to do the same for the meat stock. However, in this post and a previous one, there is no mention of the water needed. Anyone?

  4. True! With soups and stew, it’s easy, saves time, and saves money, as many ingredients are leftovers to start with.

  5. Christina says:

    Yes, water is necessary. The flavor comes off of the meat bones and vegetables and basically flavors the water. I think if you just left the bones and vegetables in the crockpot, without water, you’d end up with a burnt mess! Trent, your recipes sound great, but you really need to triple-check the instructions and ingredients. There are tons of people out there who have never cooked much, and don’t know these things. It could also be dangerous to leave things cooking overnight or all day without enough liquid. Also, the use of the word “tasty” throughout your food posts is tiresome! I would suggest finding alternate words, i.e., delicious, mouth-watering, yummy, etc.

  6. Trent says:

    Johanna – cooking vegetable stock overnight thickens it substantially as the structural elements of the vegetables break down. It gives the stock a body that can’t be replicated with a thirty minute broth.

  7. Julie says:

    Whenever I have bits of leftover vegetables from dinner, or the ends of carrots, etc, I put them in a container in my freezer. When the container gets full, I put them in a pot on the stove, cover with water, and simmer until mushy – then strain off my excellent low-sodium homemade vegetable stock!

  8. Matt says:

    check out the slow cooker jambalaya recipe on the food network website, throw together some veggies chicken and sausage and leave it running all day, when i get home toss in some shrimp (I have an automatic rice cooker so there is fresh rice waiting for me too) Its pretty foolproof of a recipe, I like to double the sausage and will use whatever sausage is on sale (polish, italian etc, doesnt have to be andoullie.)

  9. Chelsea says:

    One of our tried and true cookbooks we use over and over again is our Cooking Light Slow Cooker book. Lots of great recipes.

  10. Bavaria says:

    Thanks for the inspiration Trent! One cooking technique we enjoy is to cook a crockpot of beans overnight and then portion into freezer containers for future use–no more recycling bean cans!
    To any beef/bean chili recipe, we add 1 tsp. oregano, 1 tsp. cumin, 1 Tbsp. cocoa powder(unsweetened) and one-fourth tsp. cinnamon–results in a deep, rich flavor.

  11. Evita says:

    Interesting recipes….. but why are you using cooked meat in the crock-put? won’t the pot cook it anyway if it is raw or just-browned? and how long do you cook these meals? 4 hours or 10?
    Thanks in advance for explaining!

  12. garrett says:

    Gumbo with no okra? Can you call it gumbo?

  13. Karen M. says:

    I was always under the impression that raw flour added to a dish will make the dish taste rather paste-like. If I need flour for thickening, I generally make a roux and add it near the end of cooking. Is “two cups of flour” correct? That seems like an awful lot of flour.

    I make white chili quite often. One thing I sometimes do is add a can of tomatillo salsa in place of the chilis. It really depends on what I have on hand, as this is one of those dishes that can accommodate a lot of changes.

  14. Joanna says:

    Mmmm… Irish Soda Bread. That is a fabulous idea! When I lived in Spain, I learned to make Cocido from my roommate. It’s basically a soup with a LOT of meat (different types, chicken wings, beef ribs, spanish chorizo, etc. all together), with potatoes, carrots & garbanzos. The difference is that it has a lot less stock than a regular soup. And they eat it differently. Typically, you’ll use a slotted spoon to serve the meat, veggies & beans on a plate, then save the stock for later to be recooked with fideos, which are tiny little noodles like the ones in envelopes of chicken noodle soup. My roommate made it in a pressure cooker, which speeds up the process, but I usually do the crock pot. It’s a great dish, particularly when it’s cold out.

  15. Steven says:

    @#1 Johanna
    Flavor-wise from the vegetables, probably true, but then the “body” wouldn’t be there. I think of “body” as a combo of consistency and flavor. Kind of like the difference between a tomato sauce simmered over low heat vs thickened with starch.

    @#3 wisnjc
    Usually cover the ingredients with water plus 1 inch or so to compensate for evaporation, varies depending on the pot size and intensity of heat.

  16. Shannon says:

    One hint: roast the bones of whatever you are using in the oven at 400 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes first. This makes the stock very rich and brown.

  17. jc says:

    Trent, with your being the king of the Kill-a-watt meter, I’m curious how much a standard Crockpot uses on various settings per hour. I ask partly because we have a lovely Crockpot, but resist using it because while we pay for electricity, we do not pay for our stove gas. This skews our incentives, but if the cost is minimal it’s probably worth being able to leave the pot (relatively) unwatched.

  18. steve says:

    Raw flour has much greater thickening power than cooked flour (such as that in say, a roux) and, as long as it is cooked thoroughly once added, will not add a “paste-like” flavor.

    One thing I do on the weekend, because I actually don’t have as many activities then, is take some time to make a big leftover soup (such as Trent is suggesting) and also cook a number of necessary component ingredients for the week, such as (right now) as a largish batch of baked brown rice, an entire baked squash, a pound of dried chickpeas. All in the oven at one time to economize.

    As to the energy use of the crockpot, a standard sized one clocks in at 125 watts or so on low and maybe 200 wtts on medium and 250 on high. So 10 hours is anywhere from 1 1/4 kw/hs to 2.5 Kw/hrs. At $.20 per kw/hr (a high estimate) that comes out to 24 to 35 cents in energy cost.

    I usually use my small crockpot though (I’m single) and that clocks in around 15 cents for a 10 hour time.

  19. steve says:

    @ Evita,

    roasting the bones intensifies and changes the flavor of the stock, making it a darker stock. It’s a matter of preference as to whether you use a roasting step.

    Roasting vegetables creates a similar effect and carmelizes the carbohydrates in the vegetables or on the surface of the vegetables, again intensifying and changing the flavor.

    You might want to try experimenting with it. It’s not good for every recipe but it’s good to know how to do and what effect it will create.

  20. Sara says:

    I’ve now copied all these recipes into a word document and look forward to trying them. I always add a bit of vineagar to my stock while it cooks: it’s supposed to pull more nutrients out of the bones.

  21. Ari says:

    I appreciate the vegetarian options, Trent! Great post.

  22. kristine says:

    Question:

    If you do not have a crock-pot, can these be done stovetop? I have a gas stove- may be too expensive.

    Can they be oven cooked in a shorter timeframe?

  23. Rosa says:

    @jc #17 – all of these can be made in a pressure cooker in about 20 minutes of cooking time, starting with dry, unsoaked beans.

    I make a very similar white chili, and the cooking time is just browning onions & meat in the bottom of the pan, a few minutes to get it up to pressure, and I think 7 minutes for the beans to cook, then turn it off and let it natural release.

  24. TDH says:

    Would it be cheaper to use canned chicken instead of a whole chicken in some of the recipes?

  25. Rosa Rugosa says:

    Wouldn’t it be way nicer to boil a couple of lobsters, and then eat them? Lobster prices are at an all time low! Way wicked better than vegetable soup, in my humble opinion.

  26. km says:

    Make homemade noodles to use in soups. Mix egg yolks or whole eggs and flour to make a stiff dough. Roll out, cut in 3″-4″ sections and then cut in 1/4″-3/8″ strips, toss with extra flour, and let dry (they don’t need to dry completely). After this use them fresh or freeze for use later. My family uses these with soup made from chicken, turkey, beef, pork, or brown beans. We use only the broth or broth and meat. The broth often comes from a left over carcase and bones. These noodles are cooked until they absorb a lot of the liquid (and flavor) and end up thick like stew. Some might call them dumplings, but they are noodles where I come from. Try the brown beans and noodles – those are my favorite.

  27. Mike says:

    Great idea jut threw together a pot of my turkey chili…

    1 pound Ground Turkey
    2 cans Hunts Organic diced tomatoes
    1 can Rotel
    1 Tablespoon Chili powder
    2 cloves garlic
    1 Tablespoon Tabasco sauce
    1/2 Onion
    1 Poblano pepper or pepper of choice

  28. jc says:

    Rosa>> Thanks, maybe that will help me convince my wife to let me get a pressure cooker!

    Steve>> Not too bad for a full day’s slow cooking. Maybe the Crockpot will finally see light of day.

  29. Cheryl says:

    Thanks for including a veggie recipe!

  30. deRuiter says:

    Good post Trent! The flavor in your beef stew, chicken noodle soup and vegetable soup will be even better if you saute the chopped onions and diced celery (together) in a cast iron skillet with a bit of olive oil before you put everything into the crock pot. You want to caramelize the onions / celery, which is to get themn a dark golden brown (NOT BLACK!) If they seem slow to caramelize, you can spinkle in a pinch of sugar which will speed the browning process. Soups and stews made with caramelized onions and celery are better tasting, have a deeper flavor. A pressure cooker processes broth in a Hurry. If you have bones from a roast chicken or a rotisserie chicken, put them in the pressure cooker with chopped caramelized onion, a few bits of diced carrot, and cook on low pressure for an hour to an hour and a quarter. The little gadget on top will jiggle gently but not constantly. Then let the pressure go down by itself. When you can remove the jiggler without any steam coming out, remove lid, strain contents into a bowl, and set aside until no longer super hot, then store overnight in refrigerator, remove the cake of fat (great for soap making, but that’s another post) and you have excelent broth. The chicken bones which remain will be soft, pulpy and crumbly, with the vegetable solids mixed in. This is very high protein, chemical free dog food. The bones have been so softened by the cooking process that they’re edible, no sharp edges or bits, only healthy, high protein, high calcium mush. The dogs love it. Chickens and pigs will eat it too.

  31. Louise says:

    A couple of tablespoons of vinegar thrown in with your stock will draw the calcium out of the bones and help to make your stock gel when it’s cold. But only do this with non-reactive pots and pans, as you might get off-flavor otherwise. I can do this in my non-stick, automatic pressure cooker with a couple of turkey legs (bought on sale for about $1.79/lb.) in about 45 minutes! You don’t have to strain the fat, as there’s very little in turkey legs, and you can cut up the meat and get started on a great stew or other dish. Yum!

  32. Lou says:

    IF the meat or chicken is already cooked, i don’t add it to the crockpot till the hour before it’s served. My family doesn’t like dried out meat.

  33. Melissa says:

    Trent – another commenter put this better, but you will definitely need to give more instruction on a food blog. I tried both the stock and the chicken noodle soup this weekend. The stock turned out well, but I’m familiar enough with my crockpot to know I needed it FULL of water. The soup, however, was a bust. I didn’t know that the noodles would break down rather quickly, so I had the pot on for 4 hours and it was just mush – although the carrots were still hard. Also, without any spices it was VERY bland. Now, this is obviously my cooking problem – I’m not good! – but in order to make a success of a blog for cooking I think you need to dummy it down. Especially since this is a frugal and simple meal, you’ve got to consider that your audience may not be the best cooks or have the most kitchen know-how! Thanks, though, for the inspiration!

  34. tentaculistic says:

    Yum, good reminder – I’ve been jonesin’ for cold-weather Crockpot lentil soup, but hadn’t quite gotten around to it. So I just now made it. Good thing this was an article and not a show on the Food Network or I’d probably still be sitting here :)

    One thing to know is that if you’re using a crockpot to cook while you’re away at work, don’t combine the meat and veggies until that morning. To me, that would be logical – set everything neatly up in the crockpot in the fridge overnight – but apparently that allows bacteria buildup (the heat later kills the bacteria, hopefully, but not the toxin “poop” the bacteria puts out, which can get you sick). Who knew? Ok, probably everyone but me, until I did the online research.

  35. Rosa says:

    @jc – if you get a pressure cooker, get a good cookbook. I really like Lorna Sass but we’re still working our way through her vegetarian cookbook so I haven’t looked at any other ones.

    The only things I regularly make in the pressure cooker that aren’t from that book are beans & rice at the same time (I use our old beans & rice recipe & the cooking at the same time comes from an old issue of the Tightwad Gazette) and, right now, applesauce.

  36. Megan says:

    I am really looking forward to your cooking blog. I can’t even say how much. Out of all the blogs I started reading when I “discovered” my google reader (and RSS), this is the only one I follow with real regularity (and I’m still almost two weeks behind).

    And I enjoy every post (you’re a very talented writer, and I’ll be curious to see what you come out with in the future), but more often than not, it’s the cooking posts that I save to share with my husband. Because I like cooking, and I like the satisfaction that comes from creating a meal and having it be delicious and enjoyed by everyone who tries it (and sometimes that even happens), but I haven’t yet figured out how to cook at home every day and be healthy and happy and NOT stuck in the kitchen for HOURS.

    So I love all your little tips and tricks. I told my husband about your frozen breakfast burritos and he’s very excited to try it out. And that would make me happy, because it’s GOT to be healthier than the bagel and coffee he grabs most mornings on his way to work. And just as easy.

    Anyway, very excited about it. Can’t wait. :D

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