Hannah Palmer Egan
Ham hock-navy bean soup
At many small farms and backyard pig pens, November is hog-killing season. My husband and I get our pork from a friend; a group of us gets together each fall to slaughter, butcher and package animals. Before the meat comes home, we clear out our freezers to make way for the new stuff. And that generally means feasting on the remnants of last year's pig. This time, we had a ham to dispense with.
I love a good ham. But perhaps more than the ham itself, I love using its leftovers in dishes like pasta with tomatoes
, breakfast tostadas with crumbled blue cheese
, or in a brunch skillet with runny eggs and potatoes
My favorite ham jam has to do with the bones. A whole ham is a pork's rear leg from hip to ankle. Once you've eaten most of the meat, the leg bones make an excellent soup base. And they're key to thick stews such as split-pea soup and Senate bean soup
, which has been served daily at each of the U.S. Senate's three dining rooms since Teddy Roosevelt's first term as president.
Ham-bone-and-legume soups are fairly interchangeable — once you understand how to make one, you can make most others. I usually cook them in a slow-cooker so I can walk away for several hours without worrying that the beans will stick to the pan. I also like that the "keep warm" setting facilitates having warm soup at the ready for two or three days.
That's especially useful with ham soups, because they get better with age. On day one, your soup might taste fresh and bean-y and have a pleasant green or creamy color. By day two, it'll thicken and turn a darker shade as the soup begins to caramelize. Meanwhile, the bones, joint cartilage and marrow dissolve and lend dense, hammy flavor to the beans. By the third day, you may have to add water to thin it out — that is, if there's any left to thin.
Here's the basic recipe.
Basic Ham Hock-Legume Soup
For a three-quart slow-cooker
- 1 large ham hock or jointed ham bone
- 1 1/2 cups navy, Great Northern or mung beans, split peas or lentils, rinsed
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2-4 carrots (about two cups), diced
- 2-3 stalks celery, diced (optional)
- Water or pork stock to cover
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the bones, beans and vegetables in the pot of a slow-cooker. Cover with water or pork stock and cook on high 2-3 hours, stirring now and then to make sure it doesn't stick. When the beans have mostly dissolved, check seasoning (salt will leach from the ham bone, so it's wise to let that happen before adding more) and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Cook on low heat for another 3-4 hours, adding water one cup at a time as needed, if it gets too thick. Serve with crusty bread.
- For a richer, more complex soup, sauté the garlic and onion with two teaspoons of butter over low heat until the vegetables soften, then caramelize. Add to slow-cooker along with the other ingredients.
- If using lentils or mung beans, swap celery for parsnip, and add a half teaspoon of cumin, garam masala or curry powder for a touch of Indian flavor.