Naturally, with cooler weather, I look to soups and stews to fortify us and to keep warm. With the Ham Festival, I was exposed to a delicious Trigg County staple, the country ham, that had my mouth watering all weekend. Ham makes a great ingredient to season bean soup, and we have the best available in the world.
As I had lunch with a few friends, I began to work on how I could use the ham, and realized that the local groceries have seasoning bits of it that are ready to be added to a pot of good white beans.
The beans are simple enough to prepare. I start with a pound of dried great northern or navy beans. Wash them well, and remove any debris found among them. Beans can be soaked overnight in water, with about 3 inches over the beans, or bring to a roiling boil for about two to three minutes before taking off the heat and soak for an hour. Do not add salt to the soak-water, as that will toughen the beans. After the soak, drain the water.
To season the beans as well as the pot, I make something called a mirepoix. The mirepoix is a collection of about a half-cup of a rib of celery, half a sweet onion, and about an equal amount of carrots. Chop the ingredients to small bite-size pieces. If you enjoy garlic as I do, add two, small, minced cloves of garlic. Season the mirepoix lightly with salt, and about a half-teaspoon of cracked black pepper, along with ¼ teaspoon thyme and one-teaspoon parsley. Do not add too much salt as the ham and other ingredients will contain additional salt. Sautee the mixture in a five-quart pot with either canola or olive oil until the onions become translucent. Add the drained, soaked beans and again cover with two inches of water. Add ½ cup of dry cooking sherry. The sherry and cooking wines available commercially in Trigg County are not for drinking and contain salt. For this reason along with the ham, be careful adding additional salt. I did not need to add anymore. Add one pound of ham seasoning pieces to the soup, one tablespoon of parsley and pepper to taste. Another clove or two of garlic may be added if desired. My good friend Tommy Skinner gave me some excellent homemade hot sauce and I use about a half-teaspoon’s worth. Your favorite hot sauce will work to taste. If you like a bite, pour it on, if you like it mild, omit the sauce entirely. Last time, I added about a half-cup of celery leaves, and was pleased with the outcome. A bay leaf or two also add flavor, but remove them when finished cooking. Cover and simmer for a good hour to an hour-and-a-half. Stir every 15 minutes.
Once the beans begin to soften, add the other half of the onion, another rib of celery, and an amount of carrots equal to the amount of onion. The secret is adding one small can of tomato paste to thicken the soup and make it hearty. The paste is added in the middle of cooking because the extra acid will toughen the beans if added too soon. Stir the tomato paste in well, and add another quarter-cup of cooking sherry and cover, simmering for another hour-and-a-half, stirring frequently, adding water to keep it with a hearty, but “soupy” consistency. Taste occasionally to see if additional pepper or salt is required. Again, I did not need to add any salt because of the country ham and the wine.
After a good three hours of simmering, the ham should fall apart with the pressure of a fork, and the beans should be very tender. I serve the beans in a bowl with a large soupspoon and cornbread. Hawkins and I have enjoyed jalapeno cornbread of late, and find it goes well with the soup.
A pot of bean-soup serves four to six, or two hungry reporters. Leftovers are better the next day. This soup is hearty enough to serve as a main dish, though works well as a soup course. Good eating to all!