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A Bean Soup Recipe, With Bonus Country Ham Talk, And a Cameo By Frederick the Great

I haven’t put up any recipes during this break, so I thought I’d get moving on that a bit. Today I’m making a simple one – it’s over across the kitchen from me as I write. It’s a bean soup that my father often made for New Year’s Day, as sort of a counter to the richer, fancier stuff that preceded it during the holidays.
Sitting out in the back yard during the summer, I tried a thought experiment out on my kids. What, I asked, if we had to grow all our own food, on the land we have here in the yard? Could it be done? And if so, what crops would you pick? Some favorites, such as tomatoes and cucumbers (the very things we had growing over in the sunnier part) were eliminated early as not providing enough food value for the space and effort. I pointed out that our yard was not a very large plot of arable land, which meant that we’d have to go first for the maximum yield of calories per area planted, with an aesthetic factors coming in way down the list, if at all. The life, that is, of a peasant. My first choice was potatoes, based on the survival of the Irish farmers (well, at least until the rot) and the gunpoint recommendation of Frederick the Great. Then corn and beans, based on New World agriculture. All three also rank high for their winter keeping qualities – as I mentioned to the kids, we’d have to pile up as much food as possible in the basement and garage to make it through a Massachusetts winter. They didn’t find the prospect too appealing, which was one point of the whole exercise.
So here’s the bean part of the equation. No doubt it’s the sort of thing my own ancestors used to eat this time of the year:
Take 1 pound (or around 0.5 kilo) of dried white beans. I use Great Northern, but just about anything should work, I’d think. Soak them overnight at room temperature in four volumes of water or so – they can sit for longer, if you want to make them later the next day, but I’m sure there’s an eventual limit imposed by incipient fermentation, which I would definitely not recommend testing.
Discard the soaking water. Put the beans in a pot and cover with water again, adding one or two bay leaves and salt and ground pepper to taste. You can adjust those later on. Some people like to add chopped onion at this stage; I prefer to put a little raw on the top of the beans when they’re served. De gustibus non disputandem est.
Before bringing the beans to a low simmer, I also add some pieces of country ham, a specialty of my native part of the US. Different regions have different ideas about country ham (note that the Virginia/Smithfield ones are rather a different breed), but it’s always salty, so if you’re doing this, you’ll probably want to add no extraneous salt at all until you’ve tasted the finished product. The amount of ham is also to taste – by the standards of my ancestors, some of them, anyway, this sort of things was no doubt a luxury item, and they’d have put in a mostly bare bone, at most. I’m happy adding a half pound (0.25 kilo), in pieces. If you’d like to try the stuff, I can recommend Burger’s (I’m about to go downstairs and get some myself). Tripp is also a reliable brand. I grew up on Mar-Tenn brand, but I’m not even sure if it exists any more. It’s not just for bean soup, of course – my Southern roots call for the sliced ham to be gently pan-fried for a winter breakfast and served with biscuits, a fine meal which will have you drinking water at an increased rate for several hours.
So heat the beans gently for two to three hours, depending on how long the earlier soaking has gone (and of course, what sort of bean you might have started with). I like them to the point where the soup has thickened some, but not to where the beans themselves are breaking up. I don’t recommend any strong boiling; that’ll bring on the bean-mush stage for sure. You’ll have to check over so often to make sure that things haven’t gotten out of hand. Adding extra water, if needed, is no sin. I eat the resulting bean soup with homemade cornbread, for bonus exiled-Southerner points, and I’ll put up a recipe for that, too.
You can start from the straight dried beans, too, if you’re a real buckaroo, but you’re going to have to get going in the morning to have them for dinner.

11 comments on “A Bean Soup Recipe, With Bonus Country Ham Talk, And a Cameo By Frederick the Great”

  1. john says:

    Derek,
    I prepare something quite similar myself, also with cornbread. Have you ever tried adding to the traditional cornbread prep a can of creamed corn with a good handful of shredded cheese ? Sliced jalapenos also work well with this but perhaps not for the children. I do it all in a old cast iron skillet bought for a dollar at a garage sale way back when. Cheers and Happy New Year !

  2. 2DButt says:

    You may be able to lower your methane output and partially heat your house with the farts if you can figure out how to capture the gas

  3. Crimso says:

    I use pintos and hamhocks. Cook forever. Cornbread, no recipe (other than to note I don’t bother making it unless I have whole kernel corn, chunks of cheese, onion, and jalapeno). Cast iron skillet only (or I just won’t make it). Have heard (both cooking shows and family recipes)that adding a bit of baking soda to the beans while they cook “takes the poop out of them.” Wondered about the chemistry of that…

  4. pharmacology rules says:

    using a ham bone and a bit of white wine (cheap is fine) adds to the flavor/

  5. Bob P. in Fort Walton Beach, FL says:

    I like that you started off with the thought experiment. I suspect most folks have no idea how much work goes into growing/raising what they eat. If civilization collapses, starvation will thin us out quickly.
    On a happier note, my understanding is the gassiness of beans can be reduced by changing the soak water once or twice during the soak (although you do have, as do most bean recipes I’ve seen, the “discard the soaking water,” and I think that would be a good start along that direction).

  6. anonymous says:

    From a flatulence/chem side, why would soaking fasula vulgaris and it’s subspecies reduce this unwanted (depending on one’s company)effect? Is there a specific protein (based on water’s hydrophilic effect) that removes said offender?

  7. Another Derek says:

    If you’re into slightly fancier bean soup, there is a great recipe in the ReBar cookbook (from the restaurant of that name in Victoria BC). Soak and cook the beans, with 1 tsp fine-chopped rosemary – they say don’t salt until the end of cooking as it hardens the beans. Add an onion that’s been diced and sauteed with 2 tsp rosemary, several diced de-seeded Roma tomatoes (they say 4, I use 6-8), and a bunch of kale that’s been stemmed and torn or cut up. Thicken with half-cup orzo or other small pasta if you like. 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. A great lunch! – though I haven’t tried it with cornbread.

  8. ExGlaxoidToo says:

    @ Anon – beans cause flatulence because they contain oligosaccharides (primarily Raffinose) which humans don’t have enzymes to breakdown to digest. Once this reaches the large intestine, the bacteria there happily digest it with a resultant production of gas. Because this is a sugar, it is water soluble. Soaking the beans removes some of the Raffinose, resulting in less gas production.

  9. Anonymous says:

    8. ExGlaxoidToo –Much obliged. Interesting observation.

  10. Ethan says:

    I’m a fan of pressure cooking bean soups. No need to soak overnight. 45 minutes works for me at sea level.

  11. Ted says:

    Hi all:
    Pressure cooking is definitely the way to go.
    The trick, from Modernist Cuisine, is to cook in 1% w/w CaCl2, which toughens the skins just enough to keep them from bursting into mush. This gives a much wider margin for timing the pressure cooking. This, of course, assumes you don’t already have a lot of calcium in your water…
    My approach is to pour boiling water over the beans, let them soak for 20 minutes to an hour, drain the soaking liquid and then pressure cook with the calcified water. Partially cook (par cook) the beans if you want to follow up with a pork infusion step…
    -t

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