We’ve been trying not to eat things like ham lately. Weird start for ham and bean soup, I know… bear with me. The reason we’ve been trying to avoid uber-preserved meats like ham, bacon, deli meats, etc. is that we’re concerned about the nitrites and nitrates. It’s part of our effort to live simply; our rule of thumb is that we try as much as possible to avoid buying a food from a store that we couldn’t theoretically make in our own kitchen. This means that most things that start to feel like a college chemistry class get the boot, and ham is on that list. (I know there’s some debate about the health effects of nitrates, and also whether or not “natural” nitrate-free meats are really that different, but hey– baby steps. Feel free to keep eating ham.)
That being said, I have always loved ham and bean soup, and ham is a pretty crucial ingredient because it lends a lot of flavor (and a little meat) to the soup. So I came up with a solution. Awhile ago I had smoked a pork butt in my oven, and in a moment of foresight I saved the bone and froze it. I also had bought a pack of nitrate-free bacon trimmings at a discount grocery store. So I realized that I had several ingredients that could lend that smokey pork flavor without adding the chemicals I was trying to avoid.
It worked perfectly. I simmered the smoked pork bone in my slow cooker overnight to make a hammy broth, then used the bacon ends for the fat to cook the vegetables for the soup. The end result was everything I had hoped for; a hearty, homey, simple-but-complex soup that tastes like it belongs on a cold Saturday afternoon in January. Ham and bean soup is the kind of meal my grandfather might have had in a little half-empty downtown deli. I love it.
A quick note for people who don’t come from a Pennsylvania Dutch background like me: this soup is great when you make it, but it is perfect the next day. I don’t know many soups that improve dramatically as leftovers, but this is one of them. Also, this recipe is huge, and can probably feed a family for several days. Feel free to scale it down, but my advice is to freeze a lot of it to save yourself some time in the future.
Ham and Bean Soup Recipe
6 quarts ham broth (or a ham bone/ smoked pork shoulder bone and 6 quarts water, to make it yourself)
2 lbs dry white beans (navy, great northern, cannellini, etc.)
1/2 cup bacon ends (or chopped ham), diced
1 onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 bay leaves
4-5 sundried tomatoes, diced finely
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp thyme
salt and pepper
To make the broth: Put your smoked pork bone in a large slow cooker and fill with salted water. Cook on low heat overnight or longer.
The soup: Bring a humongous stock pot to medium heat. Add the bacon pieces and allow to render until they’re fairly crispy and have released a lot of their oil.
Add the onion, celery, and carrots, and sweat/sautee until translucent.
Add the garlic, sundried tomatoes, and bay leaves and continue cooking for several minutes.
Dump in your dry beans and mix in with the veggies. Add your stock and bring to a simmer.
Continue simmering for about 2 hours, until the beans are tender and the soup has a nice rich color. Add your spices, salt and pepper and adjust to balance the flavor. Continue to simmer for a few minutes to integrate the flavors.
Serve with crusty sourdough bread on a cloudy winter day when you don’t have anywhere to go.
There you have it! What are some of your favorite foods for winter days?
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Until next time, foodies!