I remember my mother making white beans and ham anytime there was a leftover ham hock from a holiday meal. That soup had a stick-to-your-ribs level of heartiness that has remained unmatched, in my eyes, to this day. She’d simmer a pot of Great Northern white beans with the ham hock until the beans had gotten all creamy and thick; little bits of ham dotted throughout. She’d serve it with cornbread and we’d all gobble it down. My dad recently lamented (7 years post-divorce) that he still hadn’t been able to get it replicated in his own kitchen.
I will admit that it may be an acquired taste for some. It literally consisted of nothing besides a ham hock, beans, salt and water. While I appreciate the simplicity of the dish – and no one can deny how filling and economical it was for feeding a family of 5 on a budget – I wanted to add some more vegetables into my version. I’m trying to limit my meat consumption as much as possible while adding in as many vegetables as I can, in an effort to finally meet those 5 or more servings per day recommendations. Plus, adding a mirepoix isn’t that expensive and adds a ton of flavor and nutrients into the finished soup.
I had a ham hock left over from Christmas dinner, from the ham I bought from Copper Penny Farm. It was a beauteous thing, marbled with fat and loaded with flavor. It’s easy to forget how delicious ham is when it comes from a pig that’s raised properly and isn’t one of those commercially hybridized, Smithfield-patented abominations with a 2% fat content. Seriously, check out LocalHarvest.org and find where you can get a locally grown ham for your next holiday meal. It’s worth it.
After glazing that baby with spicy brown mustard, cloves, and brown sugar, I saved as much meat on the hock as I could while carving. I wrapped it in some foil and threw it in the freezer. It doesn’t even need thawing before adding to a recipe like this. Just take it out of the freezer and throw it in the pot.
I threw a pound of Great Northern white beans into a pot, covered them with a few inches of water, added about a tablespoon of salt and the ham hock, and brought it to a boil. Now, before we get into the details of the recipe let’s take a moment to discuss beans. Canned beans are very convenient, to be sure, but there are certain applications in which they will never live up to dried beans. This is one of those applications. It takes a little time, but almost zero effort. Plus, they’re much cheaper. Just use the dried beans. That being said, don’t skip the process of picking over your beans to make sure that what you’re getting is all bean. It’s not an old-wives tale that pebbles sometimes get overlooked in the packaging process. And no one wants to chomp down on a rock – this is not stone soup.
To up the hammy flavor I also added some bacon – but in the form of ends and pieces. Most people are familiar with strips of bacon, some even with slab bacon. The ends and pieces are, well, the ends and pieces left over from the slab after slicing it into perfect little strips. You can find them in a lot of grocery stores, almost all butchers – or you can get them directly from the farmer like I did with my ham. Ends and pieces are cheap and perfect for recipes where you’re chopping the bacon up into little pieces anyways. If you can’t find a package of bacon ends and pieces in your neck of the woods, just use a pound of regular old thick-cut bacon.
Also, reserve the leftover bacon fat. I just throw it one of those Gladware containers and keep it in the back of my fridge. You might be thinking, why in the heck would I keep bacon fat? Flavor, that’s why. And once you’ve fried French toast in bacon fat and topped it with maple syrup you’ll thank me.
White Beans and Ham
1 pound bag Great Northern white beans, picked over and rinsed
1 ham hock
½ tablespoon salt
12 oz bacon ends and pieces, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
In a large soup pot add the beans and salt, and add water to cover plus about 2 inches. Add the ham hock, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and let cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for 2-3 hours, or until beans are tender and creamy. Meanwhile, cook the bacon ends and pieces in a heavy bottomed pot (like enameled cast iron) over medium-low heat until they’re dark brown, crispy, and most of the fat has rendered out. Using a slotted spoon, take the bacon out and set aside. Pour out the bacon fat, reserving two tablespoons in the pot, and save the rest for another use. Add the carrots, celery, onion, and garlic, cooking over medium heat until tender – scrape up the browned bits of bacon from the bottom of the pan – about 5 minutes.
Add the beans and enough of the cooking water to create a soup-like consistency (I used all my water) adding more if needed. Let the ham hock cool enough to touch, and strip all the remaining meat off the bone and add to the soup. Add back in the bacon pieces. Bring the soup to a simmer and let cook, uncovered, until the soup is the consistency desired. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper as desired.
Serve with warm cornbread and butter.