Tradition, Memory, and Cinnamon: Making My Grandmother's Beef Soup

My grandmother's beef soup, recreated

I grew up on a small dairy farm in western North Dakota, and I still get terribly homesick from time to time. Even though I've spent more of my life away from there, it still has my heart. It's still my home. One of the hardest parts of growing older is wanting those comforts of the past, but coming to terms with the fact that they'll never again be as you remember them. It's the pull of nostalgia, I suppose, to miss being that carefree kid running around the farm and seeing childhood friends, to miss regularly seeing my aunts, uncles, and cousins. To miss talking with my grandparents, who have all passed away.  


When I was a teenager, I worked at the museum in town during the summers. On my lunch breaks, I would venture up to my grandparents’ house for lunch and my grandma would always make sure to have something ready for me, and the three of us would eat together and talk about our lives. Even then, I really did realize that it was a special time and that one day I’d look back on it with a mixture of longing and gratitude. 


My grandparents (on both sides of the family) were real salt-of-the-earth people. They were hard working, no-nonsense, and very kind. I’m so lucky to have had them in my life. So many of my interests now are things that they did and were interested in, like preserving, fermenting, gardening, sausage making, and even distilling alcohol. 


So, when I make my Grandma Jesch's soup, it feels like a continuation of tradition, of those memories that I treasure. Like so many recipes and dishes that filter down through the generations, her soup isn't written down anywhere, but was learned instead through watching her make it, and of course, enjoying so many bowls at her table.


I only have the memory of the flavors to go off of, but I think she would appreciate my efforts to replicate one of her best dishes. She would often simmer an entire beef roast for hours, and then turn it into this most amazing, hearty soup. It has chunks of tender beef, along with root vegetables. My view for 18 yearsMy view for 18 years


But, the flavors I remember most are the warm spices. There was a hint of something unusual that drew me to this soup whenever she made it, and after multiple attempts, I discovered that the closest approximation involves cinnamon, anise, and allspice — all warm spices that make the house smell cozy and welcoming. In this soup, they work beautifully. (Also, you'd be a fool not to finish this dish with a splash of cream.) 


There are some dishes, like this soup, that bring me back to that childhood and those lunches around the table, and I'm always filled with a sense of tradition, and of passing along these flavors to my children, too. 


Hope you enjoy!


Hearty Soup of Roast Beef, Root Vegetables, and Warm Spices

(serves 4)

2 tablespoons olive oil

About a 3 pound beef roast (preferably grass-fed and bone-in)

1/2 white onion, chopped

3-4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 quart beef broth, preferably homemade

4 cups water

5-6 large carrots, cut into chunks

3-4 parsnips, cut into chunks (if too large, remove the woody center)

3 celery stalks, cut into chunks

8-10 smallish yellow potatoes, cut into chunks

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh)

1 dried bay leaf

kosher salt, and fresh black pepper, to taste

fresh parsley and heavy cream, for serving


Heat a large Dutch oven with olive oil in it. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Sear all sides of it until a deep golden color develops. Remove beef from the pan. Add the onion and garlic to the hot pan and sauté for a few minutes until tender. Add the beef back to the pan, along with the beef stock, water and the spices of cinnamon, star anise, allspice, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to a high simmer, then reduce heat to medium, cover and let simmer for about 2 1/2 hours or until the beef is somewhat tender. 


Next, add the celery, carrots, and parsnips to the pot and simmer until the beef is fully tender, or practically falling off of the bone, another 30-45 minutes, or so. Then, add the potato chunks and cook for about 20 more minutes until they are tender. 

Meanwhile, remove the beef from the pot and separate it into chunks using a fork, removing any visible fat. Return the pieces of beef to the pot when the potatoes are completely done. Re-season with salt and pepper. Remove and discard the star anise, cinnamon stick, and bay leaf. Sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley and a splash of cream before serving.  


It seems every family has at least a few dishes that spark memories even decades later. What's a dish you make that always brings you back?


Laurie Jesch-Kulseth is a lifelong home cook who has always believed that eating healthy food is an important part of a balanced life. A wife and mother of two, she pours her heart into the meals she makes for her family. She photographs and writes about it all on her blog, Relishing It, where a version of this story first appeared.