Monday, January 26, 2009

Soup, wonderful soup

This last week I came down with a bit of a cold. Mostly it was sore throat and earaches (at least at first). So I did what I normally do when I feel crappy -- I made soup. Not chicken soup, but rather ham and bean soup.

When Julia and I returned home from the holidays, we returned with more than just our holiday gifts. We returned with half of a bone-in country ham. For those who don't know what is so special about country ham, it is salt-cured. Really, really salt-cured.. As in the hams do not have to be refrigerated to be stored and are hard as rocks.

Preparing a country ham is a whole ritual in and of itself. The exterior of the ham must be scrubbed to remove any mold that might have grown. (Note: The mold that grows actually prevents pathogenic bacteria and molds from growing.) Then the ham must be soaked for 12-18 hours to remove the excess salt. Then the ham is baked until done. When we carve the ham, we always save some meat around the bone for soup-making.

Soup is a wonderfully flexible dish; the proportions between meat, vegetables, spicing, etc. can adjusted to available ingredients and individual tastes. The soup bone I used this time had lots more meat than usual.

Ham and Bean Soup
1/2 to 1 pound of country ham with bone in
15 oz. bag of 15-bean soup mix (with flavor packet removed, I just like the mix of beans)
1 medium to large onion, chopped into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound of carrots, chopped into bite-size pieces
1-2 celery stalks, chopped into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound of mushrooms cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons chopped garlic (I just garlic from a jar)
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 cup white vinegar
Enough water to cover all the ingredients

Soak the beans overnight. Drain. If the beans can not be soaked overnight, then they can be soaked in an oven preheated to 250°F (121°C) for 2-3 hours. In a real pinch, they can be simmered for an hour, then brought up to a boil to cook. Doing so leads to a thinner broth, but firmer beans.

Combine all ingredients and simmer for at least 3 hours, preferably 4-6. Add water as necessary to keep food covered and stir occasionally.

At least an hour before serving, remove the bone(s). I like to get the marrow out of the bones; normally this is done before the bones are boiled, but since they were already cooked through, I wait until near the end. Put some broth in a tall bowl or cup, add the marrow, then use my hand blender to puree the marrow into the broth. Return mixture to the soup. The marrow adds more wonderful richness.

Note that no salt is added to this recipe; the country ham will supply all the salt needed.

For dinner the next evening, we decided to let the soup simmer a bit longer. I had simmered it for three hours after I put the beans in (started everything else while I soaked the beans), but it wasn't quite the consistency I wanted. The beans were firmed that I wanted and the broth wasn't quite thick enough. Another hour of simmering and voila!, the soup was much, much better. Then again, I often think bean soup is better on days two and three. The flavors marry so much overnight and develop a lot of depth.

This recipe can by varied by which vegetables are added (I often only use mushrooms and onions, roasting the vegetables before adding them to the soup, using lemon juice or balsamic vinegar instead of white, or using a sugar-cured ham (though you need to add salt).

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