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Recipe Blogging: Bean Soup With Country Ham, and Cornbread

I’m reposting some food preps from a couple of years ago, since this was last night’s dinner around here. These are two posts combined, soup and cornbread. The cornbread was also my breakfast this morning – I started the day with some of the batch that I’d added cut-up jalapeño peppers to, which caused my wife to give me a funny look. These are good wintertime foods in general, and (as mentioned below), they’ve been so for a long time indeed.
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. When I posted this recipe a couple of years ago, readers suggested several variations which are worth checking out – different seasonings and additions, or doing the whole thing in a pressure cooker.
I always have this soup with cornbread. This recipe is adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated people, and I’ve found this to be one of the better all-cornmeal recipes I’ve tried (some of them, in my experience, come out with an oddly soapy flavor, although one commenter suggested that this just indicates elderly cornmeal). A lot of recipes have half wheat flour and half cornmeal, which works, but can make a lighter product than I associate with cornbread.
The quantities below are for an 8-inch (20 cm) cast-iron pan. An old black iron skillet is the traditional cornbread implement, and it’s probably not possible to improve on it. I’ve doubled the recipe, though, and done it in a 9-inch round Calphalon frying pan, which worked fine. A Pyrex dish also works, but doesn’t produce as good a crust. Using something that can be heated is key.
So what you want to do is heat an oven to 450F (230C). Take your pan, whatever its material, and put enough oil in it to cover the bottom plus a bit more. Bacon grease is traditional, and cooking a slice or two of bacon in the pan while it’s heating up will provide just what you need. But no matter what oil or pan you use, you want everything heated up before the batter goes in.
While things are heating, take 1/3 of a cup (45 grams) of corn meal and put it in a medium-sized bowl. Then take 2/3 of a cup (90 grams) of corn meal and mix it, in another bowl, with a bit over a teaspoon (5 grams) of granulated sugar, 1/2 teaspoon (3.2 grams) of salt, 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon (1.25 grams) of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Blend these dry ingredients together.
Now bring 1/3 cup of water (just under 80 mL) to a full boil, and add this to the plain corn meal in that first dish. Stir it around to make a homogeneous mush out of it, then add 3/4 cup (about 175 mL) buttermilk to that (regular milk can be substituted; the product will be a bit less assertive). Mix this until homogeneous, then mix in one beaten egg.
Add the dry ingredients from the other bowl and stir to form a batter. Now it’s time to get that hot pan out of the oven. Quickly swirl the oil or bacon grease around in it to make sure everything’s coated, pour any excess over into the batter and give it a fast stir, then pour the mixture into the hot pan before it cools down. Back into the oven it goes for about 20 minutes. If you’ve doubled the recipe in a larger pan, that’ll be 25 minutes, perhaps a bit more.
This should make cornbread that any Southerner would be glad to eat. It’s not sweet corn-colored cake, like a Northern corn muffin – those were quite a surprise to me when I first moved up to New Jersey. The hot pan will give it a thin brown crust, and you’ll often see these served with that side up on a plate, the way that they fall out of the pan. It is, I can testify, excellent with the bean soup recipe posted earlier today, but will also stand up to almost any soup or stew that you care to throw at it.
Variations are legion; many of them are good. You can add creamed corn to the batter, in which case you’d cut down on the milk. Whole-kernal corn is another classic addition, as are chopped jalapeños. I’ve seen diced red onion go in there as well. Some shredded cheese will make the whole thing richer. Crumbled bacon (perhaps from the slices you used to grease the pan) is another fine addition, and if you have access to pork cracklings, then you’ll be making a variation that I first had in Tennessee over 40 years ago. Enjoy!

11 comments on “Recipe Blogging: Bean Soup With Country Ham, and Cornbread”

  1. Oldnuke says:

    I’m a great fan of buttermilk in cornbread too. In a pinch (sometimes they don’t have any buttermilk in the grocery, or it’s a little on the old side to suit me), I use canned condensed milk (unsweetened!).
    I never add sugar, though. I never saw my grandmother use it on their farm in Starkville either.
    Have a great New Year!

  2. Cato the Elder says:

    I love cornbread, but mine always turns out a bit too dry. Will be trying this version tonight, thanks!

  3. rhodium says:

    As a kid I thought the true sign of being rich would be to eat only the dark brown, bottom layer of cornbread made this way. You are more likely to get agreement on the greatest chemist than the proper amount of sugar, I vote for none.

  4. boo says:

    Best. Post. Ever.

  5. BariTony says:

    Derek,
    The Indians in Eastern Massachusetts grew their corn, squash, and beans altogether. The Pilgrims wrote how they first planted the corn, then when the stalks appeared, they planted beans and squash. The corn stalks provided support for the creepers of the squash and bean plants, while the latter 2 suppressed the growth of weeds that would otherwise compete with the corn.
    I’ve always wanted to try this in our own backyard but alas, I have a youngster with some pretty severe food allergies which would preclude this.

  6. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    Many traditional ethnic cuisines combine grains with legumes. Think tacos and beans, tofu and rice, or corn (which is called maize or sweetcorn in the UK) and beans.
    My Appalachian-born wife makes great cornbread; Derek’s recipe sounds pretty similar to what she makes. She also was bemused the first time she encountered northern cornbread. I grew up in the Midwest where both types of cornbread are fairly common; I prefer the Southern variety!

  7. Filip says:

    I’ve written down your recipe for cornbread on a little piece of paper torn from an old printed NMR spectrum and make it regularly. Living in Sweden, I usually just improvise with some creme fraiche and water as a substitute for buttermilk, and it produces the best cornbread I’ve had. So rich and fluffy, far from the brick-bread my Serbian grandfather used to make for me from cornmeal, water, baking soda, and salt.
    Thanks a lot Derek!
    Will definitely try the jalapeño variety next time!

  8. Ted says:

    Throw this into your pot of consideration: the pressure cooker is lethally effective at preparing stock.
    Throw your bones in a pressure cooker with an appropriate amount of water (process chemist on holiday here…) and cook at 17psi or so for 4 – 6 hours. Don’t skimp on the time, I’ve been known to let my chicken stock go for 8 – 10 hours.
    Your golden elixer awaits.
    ciao,
    -t

  9. BD says:

    For what it’s worth, a common trick for bakers in countries where buttermilk is not readily available is to add 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk (scaleable at the same ratio), stir and use as buttermilk. Have never had any problems with it myself.

  10. Oldnuke says:

    @8:
    When I was little, my mother was making pickled green tomatoes in a pressure cooker on the stove.
    I don’t know what went wrong, but we had syrup and tomatoes all over the kitchen ceiling. And the lid went partway through the plaster ceiling.
    I’ve never had a pressure cooker at home as a result. 🙂

  11. Max says:

    My mother lets her beans ferment in the soaking stage with no apparent damage (and I haven’t noticed a taste difference in the cooked product either). I have my doubts about the health benefits she claims, but at least it doesn’t seem to do any harm.

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