The Neverending Soup Pot: An Improv Routine to Kick Your Dinner Rut to the Curb

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Above photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt; all others: Lori Hall

The way my grandfather tells it, my great-great-grandmother always kept a pot of soup barely simmering on the back burner of the wood stove. Over time, that soup morphed and changed; she'd add trimmings of this and bits of that as the pot needed replenishing, a waste-not-want-not approach to cooking that has always resonated with me.

I tend to reuse and repurpose every scrap, from saving corn cobs for corn cob stock to dehydrating the pulp left after straining gazpacho (it makes a tremendously vibrant seasoning). The Neverending Soup Pot brings this sense of thrift into sharp focus, giving me an easy and delicious way to get the most out of my ingredients and my time. Plus, the kids get more excited about a bowl of soup than a pile of dehydrated citrus pulp tuiles.

For my great-great-grandmother, that sense of thrift was mostly a matter of feeding the gaggle of grandkids, nephews and neighborhood children that constantly wandered through the house in search of a bite to eat; she'd simply ladle out some of that day's soup before sending them back outside. No doubt she served some strange bowls, mashing together whatever had comprised dinner that week in carefree, brothy fashion.

In my impoverished early adulthood, I adopted this practice for myself. (It was either that or Tuna Rice. We no longer speak of Tuna Rice.) I plan ahead more than my great-great-grandmother, so the soup's components build on each other over the course of a week. But staying true to the original spirit of the idea, I tend to think of the Neverending Soup Pot more as a lifestyle choice than a recipe. It's all about improvisation, allowing you to make the most of what you have. If you've planned to turn your beef and barley soup into borscht, but find yourself staring at a deli container of leftover glazed carrots, nothing should stop you from tossing those in with the beets. The Neverending Soup Pot is forgiving.

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Marmite-roasted vegetables destined for the soup pot.

That freeform spirit is an excellent cure for a case of soup-rut. A large pot of any one soup gets boring pretty quickly; it helps to change it up mid-stream. One particularly excellent run started as a sort of simple twist on French onion soup and finished as a creamy, chowder-esque device studded with potatoes and chunks of sausage, spiked up just a bit by ribbons of roasted green chili.

Think of it like a game of Telephone. You start with one message, changing it slightly with each pass. The message gets altered. The meaning shifts. Vegetable soup becomes chicken soup with vegetables. Chicken soup with vegetables becomes creamy chicken soup with vegetables and dumplings. Creamy chicken soup with vegetables and dumplings becomes creamy chicken soup with sausage and kale. Creamy chicken soup with sausage and kale becomes white bean soup with sausage and kale. In the course of a few days, you can go from minestrone to caldo verde, making a more complex soup every day.

Over the years, I've found that it's best to start simple. The Neverending Soup Pot is a snowballing process, and the simpler the beginning soup, the more you can do with it. Something brothy is a good start, perhaps with a few vegetables. Maybe an addition of meat on day two. Creamy components might find their way into the soup pot toward the end of the week, taking dinner from broth to chowder, never allowing boredom to set in. The one major change from great-great-grandmother Ray's approach: For food safety reasons, refrigerate your soup after each day instead of leaving it out on the stove all week.

To get you started, here's a sample of a week's worth of soups. Follow along, and feel free to pop in that bit of leftover brisket you don't quite know what to do with, or the handful of cherry tomatoes you just found hiding behind a carton of eggs. Even when you're planning things out, the Neverending Soup Pot welcomes improvisation. Here, then, one week in my neverending soup pot. Your mileage will vary.

Day One: Marmite-Roasted Winter Vegetable Soup

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As I said, it's often best to start simple, but simple doesn't mean boring, and a good stock makes all the difference. Perhaps you'd like to start with this full-flavored vegetable broth. That's where I kicked off, rounding the soup out with some roasted vegetables tossed with oil and, for a savory kick, a dollop of Marmite. (That Marmite is an acquired taste on its own, but it makes the vegetables taste like they've been soaked in beef drippings. Marmite is also amazing in a pot of beans.)

A quick gremolata of garlic, parsley and lemon zest (like this one) brings a pop of brightness. Almost as an afterthought, my wife grabbed a handful of leftover sweet potato fries from the fridge. I chopped them up and added them to my kids' bowls of soup. I've no doubt Great Great Grandmother Ray would approve.

Day Two: Adding Some Chicken

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On day two it's time to add some poached chicken breasts (or thighs, or turkey, or any quick-ish cooking meat you'd like). I topped up my soup with a little water and brought in some fresh vegetables (celery, carrot, and leek) to make a stock-within-a-stock and add more chunks to fill the bowl. So now we have vegetable stock, enhanced with roasted vegetables and marmite, enhanced again with chicken and more vegetables. Each day, this process repeats, with the soup becoming more interesting over time.

Day Three: Send in the Mushrooms

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At this point, the roasted vegetables have mostly given themselves up to the stock, which I bulked up with a simple shiitake-enhanced dashi broth. This is a good day for mushrooms, halved or quartered and roasted in a hot oven with thyme and shallots. You could just as easily reverse the order of the chicken and mushroom additions; I went this way to give the chicken more time to suffuse the whole pot with flavor and to keep some texture in the mushrooms. I seasoned the soup with a bit of fish sauce and some dry sherry—a perfect match for mushrooms—and served it with toasted bread slathered with goat cheese and a sprinkle of thinly sliced chives.

Day Four: Make it Creamy

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Each round of soup so far has fed two adults and two kids. Depending on how many mouths you have, and how large the stomachs attached, you may have more or less soup leftover every day. That's fine. You don't need a strict formula, and finding a creative way to keep it stretching is part of the point.

But speaking of stretching, four days of broth-based soup is a stretch even for the Neverending Soup Pot, so this is a good point to take a detour in flavor and texture. That's where curry powder and coconut milk come in, both to take the soup in a creamy direction and add some new flavors to the pot.

I sautéed mushrooms, shallots, and celery in some olive oil just long enough to soften them and put some color on the mushrooms. Then came curry powder, to fry in the oil so its spices bloom, followed by a can of coconut milk. Once that mixture simmered for a bit, long enough to let the flavors meld, I puréed it with an immersion blender, then added it to the soup with a little heavy cream. And voila: practically a new soup altogether.

Day Five: Neverending Soup Pot Pies

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By this point the pot won't have much liquid left. That's fine, because the vast majority of the solid ingredients have already done their work to make an incredible layered broth. Vegetable broth, chicken stock, mushrooms, marmite, curry, coconut milk; they all commingle into a one-of-a-kind soup that gets better every day.

I can think of few better ways to cap a week of the Neverending Soup Pot than to turn four versions of soup into something else entirely, and pot pie fits the bill nicely. That meant sautéeing some onion and celery in butter, stirring in flour to make a roux, and adding that mix back to the soup base to simmer into the creamy stew for pot pie. Carrots and potatoes added heft, parsley and peas brought some green, and frozen puff pastry made the lids. This is a great time to break out those cute little oven-safe ramekins you never get to use, and once you throw them in an oven until bubbly and browned, just watch the gathered horde's mouths gape when you tell them they're eating the soup from last night. And the night before that.