I grew up with bowls of ham hocks and beans, a classic stick to your ribs comfort food that doesn’t break the bank. My guess, given that my mother grew up poor on a southern Idaho farm and my father grew up poor on a middle of Montana farm, is that this was a dish they had in common (and trust me, they didn’t have all that much in common – wink). They divorced when I was 4, but this dish was a staple with both parents for my entire childhood.
I remember being served a bowl of this by my mom’s mom, a woman not known for her savory dish prowess in the kitchen (though she could knock your socks off with desserts). I was a tiny child, in the lowest percentiles for my weight vs age, and my grandmother and mother spent a LOT of time trying to get me to eat when I was 5 or 6. I wasn’t all that interested in this bowl of soup, until someone offered me some ketchup to stir in. After that, I gobbled it up!
There are a lot of variations on this soup, including the famous “Senate Bean Soup” that has reportedly been served in the US Senate dining hall since the very early 1900’s. The recipe (well, two of them) is even on the senate government website! How’s that for our tax dollars at work. My go-to source, when looking for an updated or “best” recipe is always the American Test Kitchen website. But I only subscribe online to Cooks Illustrated, so even though they have covered this dish in cookbooks and in their sister magazine “Cooks Country”, I don’t have access to the recipes. No worries. Enough bloggers have covered this, based on the Cook’s recipes, that it wasn’t too hard to find. And as always, I end up doing my own variation anyway.
The big take away I got from the updated version was to add the mirepoix (a mix of 2 parts onion, 1 part celery and 1 part carrot) towards the end of cooking, so they retain some of their texture and flavor. THIS was a worthy idea. I opted not to add potatoes (mashed or otherwise) to this particular batch, and rejected any tomato product, despite my enjoyment of the ketchup when I was 5. But I’ve often made this with potatoes, and I do like that version as well. Try it both ways and see which is your favorite. It’s great comfort food as we wait (and wait, and wait) for this long cold winter to be over.
- 1 lb navy beans (you could substitute cannellini or lima, or in a pinch, pinto, but small white “navy” beans are traditional here and I always keep some on hand for this recipe)
- 1 smoked ham hock (2 if small) or a meaty ham bone left over from a bone in ham
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp dried thyme (or 1 tsp fresh if you have it)
- Fresh parsley (4 or 5 stems go into the stock, chopped leaves at the end)
- 1 to 2 tsp salt
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 stalk celery, chopped fine
- 1 medium carrot, diced (optional – I include it because I always have carrots from the garden on hand in the winter – but a lot of recipes leave it out)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- Ground black pepper to taste (I’d start with about 1/2 tsp – this is a big recipe)
- 1 tsp lemon juice plus more for passing with bowls (don’t skip this – the little bit of acid helps cut through the fattiness of the ham stock, and makes a big difference in the final dish.)
I “quick soak” my beans, always. Purists will tell you that this often results in some of the beans splitting during the cook, thus lessening the visual appeal of the soup. But quick soaking also greatly reduces the gassiness of the beans. A worthy trade off in our house.
From an old Cooks Illustrated article on the subject:
Modern science has traced the problem to three complex sugars, or oligosaccharides, which make up 7-8 percent of the dry weight of the beans. Most people cannot break down these oligosaccharides. They pass through the colon, where intestinal bacteria can ferment them with gassy results.
Research by AkPharma Inc (the makers of Beano) indicates that soaking in cold water, even for twenty-four hours, removes less than 4 percent of the oligosaccharides. The reason? Soaking simply starts the process of germination. The living bean seed retains the stored sugars for future growth. Simmering (and then discarding the simmering water) removes up to 60 % of these sugars because the heat “kills” the beans, so cell membranes break down and release the water-soluble oligosaccharides.
The best method (for reducing gas) was developed by the CA Dry Bean Advisory Board in 1982. Boil each lb of beans in 10 cups of water for 2-3 minutes, then let soak overnight. From 75 to 90% of the indigestible sugars dissolve into the soaking water. Discard soaking water, rinse beans, then proceed with recipe.
So, quick soak your beans by bringing them to a boil in copious amounts of water and letting them boil for 2-3 minutes. Then let stand for an hour (or overnight if you have the time). Drain and rinse. Then proceed. If you want to start with dry beans (you CAN do this – you don’t even need to presoak), then double the amount of liquid in the recipe, and expect a longer cook time.
Put ham hock, bay leaves, thyme, parsley stems and beans into a large pot with 2 quarts (8 cups) of water. Add 1 to 2 tsp of salt depending on whether or not your smoked hocks are already salted – we smoke our own, so they aren’t. (And yeah, I know – legend has it that adding salt to your beans at the beginning is supposed to make them tough – its BS. It just results in underflavored beans because they don’t absorb the salt well after they are cooked and so the only thing that tastes salted is the broth. Tough beans are OLD beans and sometimes no amount of cooking will soften them up. Buy from bulk bins that turn over quickly rather than bagged beans that have been sitting since George W was in office and you won’t have any problems.) Bring pot to a low simmer and simmer until the beans are tender, which will take about 2 hours.
Remove ham hock(s) and let cool. Fish the parsley stems and bay leaves out of your pot and discard.
Saute onions, celery and carrots, if using, with a pinch of salt and a glug of oil or butter, over low/medium heat, until soft and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook about 1 minute more, until just fragrant. Add this mix back into your bean pot, along with potatoes (diced small or mashed – maybe a cup or so) if using.
Once the hock is cooled, pick through and remove any meaty bits (depending on your hock, this might be a surprisingly small amount of meat). Break them up into bite sized pieces with your fingers and return them to the soup as well. Discard the fat and bones.
Bring soup back to a simmer and cook for an additional 30 minutes or so, until the vegetables are tender. Use a potato masher to smoosh around some of the beans and veg to make a more creamy texture.
Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Add lemon juice and fresh chopped parsley (about 2 tablespoons) and serve, passing additional lemon wedges. Fresh corn bread is a must for us with this dish.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2017, where we’re miles away from our German and English heritage, but pretty much never turn down a serving of beans, no matter how they are cooked.