How to Make Instant Pot 'Nostalgia Soup'

How to Make Instant Pot ‘Nostalgia Soup’


Welcome to Set It & Forget It, a new series about all the ways we rely on our slow cookers, Instant Pots, and ovens during the colder months. Whether it’s a long braise on the stove or a quick burst in the pressure cooker, one thing’s for sure: Comfort food means comfort cooking.

In the 18 years that I spent going to public school in Fulton County, Georgia, I ate my fair share of cafeteria lunches. In fact, I hardly ever packed my own lunch, and neither did my parents, who worked full-time at a beeper store on Buford Highway. This meant that I had the cafeteria menu memorized, and knew exactly which day to fill up on breakfast (because it was mystery-meat sloppy joe day) and when to leave room (because it was grilled cheese and soup day).

At Abbotts Hill Elementary School, you had a few regular options for lunch: tuna salad, chicken nuggets, and greasy pizza. The usual. The daily entrée, however, would be something more substantial and homemade. On the rare joyous occasion, “Vegetable Beef Soup” was on the menu.

This meant a couple of things: 1) you got a styrofoam bowl of the brothy, tomatoey soup (which I’ll get to in a second), but also 2) a side of the buttery grilled cheese to dunk to your heart’s content. Every time I saw this soup, I ordered it because it tasted like nothing I’d ever had at home. So comforting, and so full of vegetables.

A note on vegetables: There was a period when I stopped ordering the soup, even though I loved it. Back then, kids made fun of you for eating (and liking) vegetables, and I succumbed to peer pressure because I was a closeted beta bud yet to blossom into the flaming alpha homosexual I am today.

Until I met Matthew S., who loved vegetables and didn’t care who knew it. Matthew S. had a soft face with kind eyes and brown hair, a sort of Timothée Chalamet (before he was Timothée Chalamet). We met one day in the cafeteria. He said to me, “I love green beans.” I said to him, “I love green beans!” And the rest was history.

I loved the way he’d scarf down the vegetables on his plate each day at lunch and snap back at anyone who made fun of him for it. He protected me from the bullies at school and made me feel safe.

Maybe my love for this soup has more to do with memories of him than any particular fondness for it. Though there must be a reason why, out of everything in my past, I picked this taste memory to replicate for my adult self.

Some of these are vegetables.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

After developing an Instant Pot variation this week, I can guarantee that vegetable beef soup is objectively good for myriad reasons:

  1. It’s essentially a dump, set, and forget situation. Easy cooking.
  2. It’s bowl food, which is a category of cuisine that inherently means easy eating (on the couch, in front of the television, with a spoon). Like a loose chili, my Instant Pot vegetable beef soup is exactly what you want to nestle into on a cool fall day after work. Maybe you’re in a Snuggie, maybe you’re not. As Nigella Lawson says, it’s “the feeling of eating when every spoon or forkful is reassuringly the same as the last.”
  3. It’s full of protein—the ever useful and ubiquitous (and affordable) ground beef, which turns effortlessly soft in the Instant Pot. If you ever needed a case for why you should cook ground beef in a pressure cooker, this is it.
  4. It’s full of vegetables—tomatoes (albeit canned), green beans, peas, carrots, onions, and lots of garlic. In the cafeteria version, all of this veg is mushy and from a can, but that was the charm of it. In the adult version, the vegetables are a little more sprightly, and with texture.
  5. It’s also the batch cooking you want to eat over and over, which means it’s a great contender for loading up into a thermos and taking to work for lunch.
  6. The nostalgia of vegetable beef soup is likely its best ingredient, but I also add a splash of soy sauce for savory depth. And I’ve replaced the grilled cheese with crusty bread and Parmesan (but by all means, feel free to make a grilled cheese if you like).

In researching the history of this soup, I found that no one in my present life—not my colleagues nor my friends in New York—grew up with any semblance of tomatoey vegetable broth with ground beef like I did. A part of me started to wonder, then … did I make it up? I even found Matthew S. on Facebook (but was too chicken to send him a friend request or message him about vegetable beef soup). So instead I reached out to my elementary school friends with the question: Do you remember this?

I got a slew of responses back and it made me feel less alone in my nostalgic renderings of a dish I wasn’t even sure existed. But there’s nothing like group memory to help you go back in time and confirm the past.

Here’s what my childhood friends had to say (reviews were mixed):

  • “The soup! It was orange-red and basically tasted like tomato juice. And there were these little green beans that were always really overcooked. And sometimes corn and peas. And potato. It looked a lot like this.” —Julia, always had a good memory
  • “I don’t remember eating it, but I do remember seeing it! My memories of this dish + sloppy joes are intersecting here … I think it was served with a roll (to sop) and canned corn?!” —Skye, doesn’t have a good memory
  • “I remember NOT liking that dang soup. They would serve it with one squishy roll and the soup in my memory was mostly mushy kidney beans. It now sounds comforting, but I was not a fan of the mush way back when.” —Jennifer, has since been seen eating mushy foods and seems to enjoy them, so not sure what the big deal is
The soup; only a select few remember it.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

  • “I don’t remember the soup, but I do remember very soft chocolate chip cookies, ice cream, corn dogs, rectangle pizza, chicken fingers, and the fact that they tried to get us to stop talking and eat our food by playing music intermittently.” —Olivia, hated the establishment then, hates it now
  • “I do remember the vegetable soup with ground beef. Lots of whole tomatoes and okra and green beans. All from a can, of course. And lots of beef broth. It wasn’t my favorite school lunch, but then again there was nothing about school lunches that I found desirable. Which was why I had my mom pack me a BLT everyday for three years.” —Tyler, still prefers BLTs to dumb school lunches
  • “I remember and stan that sh$t.” —Jen, senior vice president of Vegetable Beef Soup, Inc.

Out of curiosity, I checked the Fulton County lunch menus and learned sadly that no, vegetable beef soup is no longer served in those cafeterias.

Do you have a favorite nostalgic food from your cafeteria days? Let us know in the comments below.

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