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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Making Budget Foods More User-Friendly: Scratch Substitute for Condensed Cream Soups

Scratch Cream of Celery Soup to Use in Casseroles

Back to my weekend version of this blog -- basic frugal foods made easy. 

A lot of folks weren't raised learning basic frugal cooking skills. Instead, in their family homes of origin, a lot of foods that they consumed were what we'd recognize as convenience foods, such as boxed meal helpers. There's nothing at all wrong with that scenario. However, they now find themselves (through no fault of their own) on a very limited budget, unemployed or forced into early retirement due to this pandemic, struggling financially right now and looking for help so that they can help themselves. Enter Basic Frugal Foods Made Easy, my weekend version of this blog that goes back to the basics to help others make very delicious foods while sticking to a tight budget. Remember, once you learn a piece of information or a new skill, you own that information to use over and over again. 

M'm! M'm! Good! 
M'm! M'm! Good!
Here's a substitute
that's M'm! M'm! Good!

I wanted to share another recipe to add to your budget cooking repertoire -- a canned "cream of whatever" soup substitute for using in casseroles. This soup is delicious in tuna casseroles, green bean casserole, chicken and rice casseroles, combined with chunks of chicken and vegetables served over toast or biscuits, or just pouring over some chicken breasts to cover with foil and bake. 

I love that you can make a casserole from just about any cooked meat, some veggies, a starch like rice, pasta, or shredded/cubed potatoes, and a binder like a cream soup. If the soup is flavorful enough, there's little need for added seasonings for the casserole.

The following recipe makes 16 ounces, or about 1 can of condensed soup plus 1/2 can of milk -- which is the amount called for in many of my recipes.

The soup itself is delicious as is. To serve as a soup, this may be diluted with about 1/4 cup of water or milk to thin as it's quite thick. It could be made with vegetables other than celery, such as broccoli or mushrooms. I make this with celery, as that's the most economical version for use in casseroles. 

As you might already know, a cream soup is simply a white sauce with added flavorings and a bit more richness. If you can make a white sauce, then in addition to making a substitute for canned soup in casseroles, you can make a cheese sauce (for homemade mac and cheese or Welsh rarebit) or a cream of whatever you can imagine soup. In early spring, I make cream of garden sorrel soup and cream of garden watercress soup with this recipe. I also make cream of asparagus soup with the peeled ends from fresh asparagus. And in late spring, I make cheesy cream of kale and carrot soup using this recipe as a backbone.

Do you have about 15 minutes? The total time to make this soup is about 12-15 minutes, including chopping, measuring, cooking, and puréeing.

Cream of Celery Soup
  (yield: 16 ounces of thick creamy soup)

2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup chopped onions
3/4 cup chopped celery
2  2/3 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup whole milk (I use part 2% milk and part heavy cream, but all milk --whole or 2% -- also works)
3/4 cup chicken stock (I use 1 teaspoon chicken soup base plus 3/4 cup water)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/16 teaspoon black pepper
dash nutmeg
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese

In a medium-sized saucepan (about 2 quart capacity) -- over Medium heat, cook onions and celery with the butter until the vegetables are soft and translucent. about 5 to 6 minutes.

Stir in the flour and cook 1 minute. 

Add the milk and stock while stirring and cook until thickened, about 3 minutes. 

Add garlic powder, black pepper and nutmeg. 
Remove from heat. Purée with immersion blender, food processor or pitcher blender until smooth.

Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, onion powder and Parmesan cheese. Adjust seasonings, adding the extra salt as desired for recipe. To use in a casserole, you want the soup to be more flavorful and less bland. At this point, you could add a hit of red pepper flakes, more nutmeg, or more onion or garlic powder, if that suits your taste.

The soup is ready for your casserole.

Perhaps you remember casseroles that were topped with potato chips. Here's a bonus recipe for a casserole topping made with butter, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, a pinch of dried herbs, and Parmesan cheese.

Savory Bread Crumb Topping

I take 1 slice of bread (wide pan if commercial, otherwise a standard slice of homemade bread) and turn it into crumbs in the food processor. 

In a small skillet I melt 1 teaspoon of butter and toss in the bread crumbs. As the crumbs toast, I add 1/4 teaspoon salt, a dash each of pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and the dried herbs. (I've used thyme, here, but I sometimes use dried basil or oregano, depending on what type of casserole this is for.) Then at the end, I add 3 teaspoons of Parmesan cheese, stirring in between each spoon of cheese.

before baking
after baking

The crumbs should not be too toasty-looking just out of the pan, as they'll toast up on top of the casserole upon baking.

You might be able to buy a can of cream soup for less than or equal to the cost of this recipe. However, the value is not necessarily in the money spent for homemade compared to a store-bought can of soup. The value is in looking at your pantry and not knowing what to make from what you have, compared to ordering a pizza or other takeout.

With a batch of homemade cream soup, plus pasta, can of tuna, some peas, and a crumb topping, you can make a complete dinner in about the same amount of time as waiting for a pizza to arrive, saving substantially.

In addition, you get to control the ingredients. So, for example, perhaps you want a dairy-free version. You can make this with an alternative milk. Or perhaps you want to avoid extra sugars or reduce the sodium, that's all in your control.

My family will tell you that this soup tastes better than any commercial canned cream soup. Either I have especially un-picky eaters in my house, or this is a good soup recipe.

Do you have an immersion blender? I resisted buying one for many years. About 6 or 7 years ago I finally bought one like the above. This one has a plastic casing. If I were to choose over, I might spring for one with a metal casing by a company like Vitamix. But so far, I've been satisfied with what I have. The shield around the blade is plastic, and it has developed a tiny crack in it, but it still works. I always wash the attachment by hand under running water (not soaking) and never in the dishwasher -- avoiding corrosion in the interior blade and shaft area. I prefer puréeing soups and sauce with this blender over the a food processor or pitcher blender, as I have less to wash up after cooking.

So, that's my recipe for a canned condensed soup substitute. If you make this, let me know what you think and how you tweaked the recipe.


  1. While I do make white sauces from time to time, I have never thought about making a cream soup. I will give this a try in a few days. On today's menu is a big pot of ham and lima beans.

    Once again, I am enjoying your weekend cooking series. Thanks, Lili.

    1. Yum, a big pot of ham and limas sounds hearty, Live and Learn! Enjoy it. Sounds like there might be leftovers for meals this week for your household.

  2. Good idea and I have made cream soups before. A lot of my cooking comes from what goes on in my head rather than a recipe. That's how mom did it too and I guess I learned from her. All her meals were from what the garden provided and meat from the butcher. We rarely had rice and pasta since that was not something they grew. But we were a meat and potato with veggie kind of family. I ventured from that when I got married and made spaghetti and more casseroles than what I had growing up BUT I still use what I either grew myself of what dad gave me. There was a time I lived far away from my parents but had a large lot to grow all kinds of veggies that we froze or canned. Now living closer to them and in a smaller lot I can't have a garden. I still cook everything from scratch. Today, I went shopping in my freezer. I found enough to make a minestrone soup, chicken noodle soup, ham balls, and peaches for a dessert. Oh, and some peach jam for hubby who loves any kind of jam. I also made a big french bread yesterday and have enough meats and cheeses for a big submarine sandwich to go with our two types of soups this week.

    1. Hi Alice,
      it sounds like you've got meals set for the week. Great work! Peach jam is a favorite of mine but something I rarely get. Peaches are a fruit that grows on the other side of the mountains, here. So, they're something of a luxury in summer. But maybe I could make a small batch of peach jam this next summer.
      Enjoy your meals!

  3. The midwest cooking technique! I read somewhere that a midwest cook can make a meal out of anything if she has a can of cream of something soup. Which is true, although many of us are venturing into new cooking territory these days. Now we don't even need the soup on hand. Thanks for the recipe.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I hadn't thought that casseroles made with cream soup was a midwest thing. I learn something new every day. A can of cream soup is a handy thing to keep in the pantry, though (or know how to make a white sauce or cream soup). Especially on those nights when you can't think of a thing to make for dinner. Then it's just auto-pilot, tossing things together to make a casserole.

  4. I think this can of cream soup thing is purely an US thing? If I make casserole, I'll make it from scratch just like the receipe says - I've never seen local receipe using can of cream something soup. Actually I've not seen such receipes in Europe at all ;-)
    But I wish my kids would eat casseroles! Lasagne and mac'n cheese are only ones they like. They prefer foods that are more... separate?


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