finally! learning how to make vegetable soup

LIKE THE BEST RECIPES, it’s a hand-me-down, delivered in the best oral tradition: told to me over a meal, and recorded on a paper napkin. At breakfast with my old friend Irene Sax one day—a longtime food writer, and my former “Newsday” colleague—I was panicking about my late-summer vegetable glut, and she said: “Vegetable soup. I make it all the time, freeze it, and eat it every day for lunch.” And then I realized: I don’t know how to make proper vegetable soup. Or didn’t, until then. The extra-easy recipe.

Yes, of course I make vegetable soups: onion soup, split pea, lentil, sweet potato-greens, carrot-ginger, and so on. But a less-specific catch-all “vegetable soup” wasn’t in my repertory. Irene (who co-wrote “Beard on Pasta” with James Beard, and until recently taught food writing at NYU) fixed that.

irene’s vegetable soup, my way

(I say “my way” because the “recipe” on that napkin didn’t actually give proportions of anything, just, “diced onions, celery, carrots…” and because Irene says, “zucchini doesn’t add much to the mix” so she skips it. Me? I’m looking for ways to use up my summer-squash harvest at the moment. When I showed her the photo, Irene said, “Mine is redder,” meaning more tomatoes, and that’s the point: Balance the “recipe” according to your taste, and the garden’s offerings.)


  • Olive oil
  • 2 or 3 medium onions, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 or 4 carrots, diced (about half a typical bag)
  • 3 or 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • Broccoli or cauliflower, about 2 cups chopped small
  • Kale or chard or collards or a mix, maybe 6 big leaves, stems removed and foliage chopped
  • Summer squash, 1-2 cups diced
  • Shell beans, such as cannellini or chick peas (1-2 cups, pre-cooked)
  • Tomatoes, ripe raw ones, or large can of whole plum types
  • Parsley and basil, chopped, to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Water
  • Green beans, fresh (cut up if large)


  1. Into a large pot (such as for boiling spaghetti, or a deeper stockpot) pour enough olive oil to saute onions and garlic.
  2. When the alliums are translucent, add carrots and celery, and cook until just tender.
  3. Add diced zucchini next, then broccoli, covering to allow them to cook slightly.
  4. When squash is tender, add leafy greens and herbs; cover briefly to let them wilt.
  5. Add tomatoes and pre-cooked garbanzos or cannellini beans, cover again.
  6. When tomatoes start to soften, add water to cover the entire mixture plus about a half-inch, cover the pot to bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer. (I underdo the water because I can always dilute the broth later, but freezer space is precious.)
  7. The soup will be done when it looks and tastes done—an hour or a couple of hours, your call. When it is almost there, I add the green beans for the final 15 or so minutes of cooking time, along with some salt and pepper and extra water to cover them if needed. No surprise: Irene adds her green beans earlier. What will your variation be?


WHEN SERVING, add some or all of these. Served with good bread, it’s a meal. I like mine with:

  • a dollop of pesto
  • grated parmesan cheese
  • a drizzle of good-quality olive oil
  • slightly undercooked pasta (add it when reheating; don’t let it sit in the soup)
  • more beans; garbanzos really are delightful in this soup
  • a crostini (toasted bread with cheese, perhaps, or spread with the pesto), sort of a giant crouton


  1. Elizabeth says:

    We make vegetable soup with whatever is handy, though carrots, potatoes, onions , celery and garlic would always be in there. I use a quart of my canned tomato juice and vegetable boullion (I like Telma brand vegetable boullion from Israel.) We do not cook any where as long as 2 hours. I like some barley or orzo in it, never beans as am not making minnestrone. Also never broccoli. Cauliflower is OK, so is cabbage, corn, green beans, sweet potato, yellow summer squash, zucchini, parsley, rutabaga. This soup cooks fast enough to make when get home from work. Start the barley in the broth, when that is almost done add the tomato and whatever other vegetables. Add fresh or frozen peas at the very last. If youj have spinach leaves throw that in at the end also. I like the vegetables tender crisp, not over cooked. They should still be bright and colorful, like eating a stir fry that is a soup. I never freeze the leftovers, we take to work for lunch, have a another time for dinner.

    Someone asked what not to use…red cabbage will turn your soup blu-ish. That’s all I can think of.

    1. Dawn says:

      I really like the idea of starting the barley in the broth first. It’s so good for you, but sautéing the veges together first gives you that wonderful ” rich vegetable soup flavor”. Thanks for the idea.

      1. Shelley says:

        ALWAYS brown onions in the oil first, adding broth as you go. Sweetens them. Garlic, I’ll tend to roast or toast if I can before adding, same reason. Everything else, whatever is at hand, in whatever quantity necessary to smell right. Rice is always a good thickener too if need be. Barley, I too find best. Sticks to your ribs and “stays with you”(leaves you fuller, longer)

    2. Edda says:

      Add a dash of apple cider vinegar and the red cabbage stays in the cabbage – the taste is great, and you can add less salt.

  2. Chris Nicholson says:

    Your soup was great on Friday night! We’ll have it again this evening (Sunday) and then for meal three I’ll add more chard and maybe kernels from one ear of corn. Round 4 will get some grated beets which have to wait for the last round which will have a scoop of yogurt on top. Yum, yum. Chris N.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Chris. Great news! It’s fun how each batch or serving becomes a variation. I just got a small extra freezer on sale this last week to stash more of it before the garden’s gone.

  3. Jan says:

    Since I recently had knee surgery and couldnt stand for long, so I sautéed the onion and garlic first, but then just dumped everything else in the pot. Instead of water I poured in two 11.5 oz. cans of V8 juice, then added 3 cubes of beef bullion. I live in a small town and had to substitute fresh spinach for the Swiss chard. This was the richest, most delicious vegetable soup I’ve ever eaten. Accompanied by corn muffins, this was the perfect fall meal. Thanks!

  4. Christina says:

    Thanks for the inspiration…made a nice big pot of veggie soup over the weekend! A trip to the farmers market and used up lots of things lingering in the fridge/freezer. And enjoyed again for lunch today at work.

  5. Eileen J says:

    Soup! It is what my family lives on in all but the hottest summer months. When busy teenagers who come and go constantly, mealtimes can be tricky, but if there is a big pot of soup in the fridge, and some quality bread or crackers in the cupboard, there is always a nutritious meal waiting. I’m looking forward to cooler weather when I’ll resume making two pots of soup every weekend, which sustains us through the week. Soup is a fantastic way to get kale into people.

  6. Sharon Leader says:

    I love your wonderful recipe! When I was a child my grandparents and my parents had a large vegetable garden every year (my grandfather was a farmer). During the summer and fall my grandmother always made what she called her “soup mix”, which consisted primarily of fresh home-grown tomatoes with onions, corn, and okra. This was frozen and made quick, delicious meals during the winter. Other ingredients could be added to this rich tomato base at the time of cooking. It became a family tradition to have this vegetable soup when we had one of our rare snows. I love all kinds of soup and make a lot of different types but this is the one I get a craving for on cold winter days!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Sharon, for the great suggestion. I often pack up individual vegetables that way (like if I have too many beans all at once) but should do the “mix” as you say. Love it.

    1. margaret says:

      Good idea, Lori! And good idea to freeze it — because when I use up the cheese it’s never quite the right moment for soup-making. I do confess to always sprinkling grated cheese on my soup, and a drizzle of olive oil.

  7. Helen W says:

    Just made this soup yesterday, and liked it although it seemed a little bland… then I added a little good-quality balsamic reduction, and wow!

  8. Penny says:

    Somehow, Margaret, I can’t believe that phrase, “when the alliums are translucent” was ever scribbled on a napkin!
    It should be the title of some autumnal poem.. lovely.

  9. Jane says:

    Vegetable & bean soup is what I live on year-round! I always have a huge stockpile of dried beans to cook, and then add whatever vegetables and grains I have on hand. Heat it up to eat in the winter and keep it in the refrigerator to eat cold in the summer. Sometimes I’ll mash half of the cooked beans a bit and re-add them to the soup to thicken, if needed.

    Haven’t tried it yet with the rind from parmesan, but will do this weekend. Sounds delicious!

  10. Susan Gutman says:

    A variation of this is a staple at our house. I make a game out of seeing how many different vegetables I can get into one soup, with extra points for the veggies I’ve grown myself. In a pinch, I’ll thicken it with frozen riced cauliflower from Trader Joe’s. Also, a little Marsala wine added toward the end of cooking adds nice depth to the flavor.

  11. Anne R. says:

    I add mushrooms, peppers and a small diced potato to mine. Potato breaks down and adds body. Also, I add eggplant. And sometimes I add smoked Italian sausage too. A few leaves of thinly chopped flat kale put in at the end is enough kale for me. I call it my kitchen sink soup.

  12. Carrie Ferran says:

    I love this idea and definitely going to do this. My question is about freezing. What methods work best for folks? I’m leaning toward much less plastic so have been using mason jars and Pyrex glass storage containers for most things except for the glut of tomatoes which go into gallon freezer bags for preserving once the garden is tucked in for winter. The pyrex have plastic lids but I’ve had my set for many years and it’s good as new, hopefully will last many many more years.

    1. Anna says:

      I freeze sauces and soups in muffin tins to have puck “portions” that later get stored in a gallon bag. Makes it easy to have the perfect amount for whoever I’m feeding :)

  13. Elise Schlaikjer says:

    I would like to suggest reading Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard as I have been impressed on a variety of levels, learning more science while enjoying the way she writes and includes her personal story. It is a winner and it needs a much needed larger audience for what she reveals. How everything is connected and the importance of community and sharing. I have read it once and plan to read it again as there is much to be absorbed. Suzanne is an incredible force of nature, heading the instructions of our Mother Tree and sharing important information we all need to know.

  14. Tanya says:

    My partner likes ramen soup (the organic ones with baked noodles), so I started eating it but felt it wasn’t a real meal without chunks of vegetables. And then I realized I was getting a few vegetables from the garden, early in the season, not quite enough to do much with. So I started chopping up whatever was fresh from the garden: a few beans, a half of a zucchini, a tiny eggplant. And voila! The perfect summer meal that takes minutes to make.

    I put water and noodles in the pot, and while it’s heating up, I chop some vegetables. The vegetables go in the pot as they are ready, and once it comes to a boil, I let it bubble for 3 minutes, and it’s done! Sometimes I add cubed tofu, or some frozen gyoza or ravioli, or some frozen vegetables.

    Last summer, we didn’t eat all the Red Noodle beans (foot-long purple beans) because we didn’t have a recipe to use. Now, I add them to my soup! This recipe alternates with my longtime summer favorite, tomato sandwich (heirloom tomato with avocado and red onion on toasted sourdough)

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