The arrival of cooler weather means that it’s time to start restocking the freezer with hearty winter comfort foods. Some of the mac ‘n’ beef now resides in the freezer. Another favorite that needs to be stashed in the freezer along with the chili con carne is some ham and bean soup.
For my bean soup, I start with a one-pound bag of soup mix of fifteen different beans and lentils. The first step is to discard the seasoning packet that comes in the bag with the beans.
The dried beans need to be soaked so it does require a little planning. Use a brine of 3 tablespoons of table salt or equivalent amount of kosher salt (see Conversions page) in one gallon of water and soak over night at room temperature.
The next important ingredient is some country ham (a hock is good or a slice will do too)–not the “city” or deli ham. If you’re lucky you’ll find real country (dry, salt cured) ham in your supermarket (not in the refrigerated meat section, but somewhere in the meat department), or maybe even in your local hardware store (right next to the new-crop pinto beans there in the bushel basket).
American country ham is dry, salt cured–like Italian prosciutto or Spanish Serrano ham. (Deli or “city ham” is wet cured in brine and is a different matter. You can use it for ham soup, but it’s a different flavor and complexity when you use country ham.)
Because the country ham is SO salty, it needs to soak in water (or milk) to remove some salt. If your ham is a thick chunk like a hock, it needs to soak at least 24 hours, with the water changed about every six to eight hours, to remove salt. For a thick slice of country ham, or even “biscuit” slices, an overnight or 8-hour soak would be adequate with a couple changes of water.
The “hock” is the small end of the hind leg that has been cured. It will have some skin, bone and fat on it. Don’t remove the skin, bone or fat…it has connective tissue that will “melt” with the slow cooking and give the soup a nice silky texture.
When you’re ready to start the soup, sauté chopped onions, celery, and carrots in a bit of olive oil until they start to brown. This caramelization adds an extra layer of flavor to your soup. I like to add lots of whole garlic cloves for the last few minutes of the sauté. You can slice or mince the garlic if you want, but whole cloves will give mellow background flavor after they’ve cooked with the beans and almost fall apart.
Two cautions when making this soup:
- First, you do not want to add acid ingredients (like tomatoes) to your soup until the beans are tender.
- Even though the ham was soaked, it’s still going to be saltier than “city” or deli ham, so don’t add salt until you’ve tasted the cooked beans.
Drain the soaking water from the beans. Put the beans and ham hock into a Dutch oven with the aromatics (onions, carrots, celery) and herbs (a couple large bay leaves and about a tablespoon of classic herbes de Provence) and enough liquid (water or part chicken broth) to cover the beans by a couple inches. Bring to a simmer on the stove top. Once simmering, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid put it on the middle rack of a 295 ° F to 300 ° F oven. It can simmer unattended for about an hour to an hour and a half later when you should check to see how tender the beans are.
When the beans are almost tender, remove the pot from the oven. Take out the ham hock and remove the skin, fat and bones. Chop the meat into bite-sized pieces and return it to the pot.
Now that the beans are tender, you can add acid ingredients to your soup. I like to add two 14.5-ounce cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes, or just diced or crushed tomatoes–what ever strikes your fancy. Either return the soup to the oven for another 30 to 40 minutes, or simmer on the stove top to allow flavors of the soup and the tomatoes to meld.
You now have some serious bean soup. Just before serving I like to add a few drops of sherry vinegar to brighten the flavor. Some minced parsley would make a great garnish, adding some bright, fresh notes to this hearty, earthy soup.
This does make a lot of soup so some is destined for the freezer for that really cold, damp winter day when you need comfort food.
A son goût!