It’s still snowing in Montana. It’s still snowing in Indiana. It’s cold and snowy everywhere I go. Cold and snow are following me. Don’t invite me over, unless you want snow and cold. I’m not getting many offers. I imagine it’s cold and snowy where you are, too. Unless you’re my son, who happens to live in Tampa, and sends us pictures from his patio, outside, overlooking Tampa Bay with no ice or snow, and a reported 70°. He’s kind of a smarty pants.
It’s been a cruel winter here in America’s heartland – like those of my childhood when children wore warm coats, hats, mittens, scarves, and the girls wore leggings – faux fur lined leggings with suspenders, and substantially warm boots. Remember Randy in A Christmas Story? My brother, sister and I lived through those winters. It was so cold, Deep River in New Chicago would freeze, and the whole neighborhood went ice skating. Many, many winters have passed since the river’s froze over, and the neighborhood went ice skating. Think what you will about global warming. This is the first real winter I can remember in a long time.
Last month, Jessica, Brock and the boys needed warming. In February, Richard and I needed some warming. While seriously freezing well below zero in Indiana, and again in Montana, I made pots of this steamy and hearty vegetable ham and bean soup. Along with skillets of crispy homemade cornbread. I’m constantly amazed by simple ingredients transformed into deliciously satisfying comfort food. It doesn’t take much. The flavors are amazing.
Here’s a foolproof way to warm you and yours:
As soon as cold weather begins, I stock up on ham hocks and bags of dried beans. Normally, ham hocks come in packages of two. I use one for the beans, and freeze the other for another time, like split pea soup or pasta beans. The night before, I thoroughly rinse one pound of dried beans, put them in a bowl, cover with water, and let soak overnight. I think soaking the beans gives them a creamier texture in the soup. Here I’m using pinto beans, because I like the flavor. But you can use any dried bean you prefer: great northern beans, red beans or a 13-bean mix.
When you’re ready to make soup, drain the beans in a colander, and rinse well. Add the soaked beans and one ham hock to a 5-quart Dutch oven, and cover them with water. I don’t add any seasoning at this point, not even salt. There’s some saltiness in the ham hock, but extra salt added to the water will make the skins of the beans tough.
Bring the water to a boil over medium high heat. Stir, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Leave the lid off the pan.
Soon, you’ll see gray foam begin to develop on the top of the liquid. Skim the foam off using a large spoon, and discard.
Once the foam is skimmed, this is what you have left. Now this pot is going to cook for two hours more. So, put a lid on the pot, reduce the heat some more, and low enough to keep the beans gently simmering, not boiling.
While the beans are simmering, it’s time to prepare the vegetables. Three stalks of celery chopped in 1/4″ dice. Three medium carrots chopped into 1/4″ dice. One large yellow onion in 1/4″ dice. (Set aside 1/4 – 1/2 cup of the diced onion for garnish – I like a little raw onion.) One jalapeno pepper finely diced – remove the seeds and the white insides, if you don’t want the soup too spicy, omit the jalapeno altogether and replace with diced yellow or red pepper. Two cloves of garlic, finely diced.
After two hours, remove the pot lid. Remove the ham hock, and allow to cool. Check the beans. They should be soft and mushy, but intact. You may see skins peeling away from some. Don’t worry – this is exactly what you want. Add the raw vegetables. Add 1 teaspoonful salt, 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper. Remove the meat from the ham hock, and return it to the pot. Stir with a wooden spoon. Replace the lid. Continue to cook over low heat for another hour or two, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
While the soup finishes, prepare the cornbread. I’ve used several different recipes for cornbread over the years, but I get the most compliments on the recipe from The Pioneer Woman’s website: Skillet Cornbread. I like slightly sweet, yellow cornmeal cornbread. So, I add two Tablespoons of honey to the batter. You can easily leave it out, if you’re a cornbread purest. The Pioneer Woman’s cornbread uses more cornmeal than white flour, which I like. It turns out crumbly and crunchy, perfect for this soup. I also bake it in a 10″ cast iron skillet, rather than a 12″ skillet. If I use a 12″ skillet, I make 1.5 times the recipe, so it doesn’t end up too flat and dried out. My middle grandson LOVES this stuff.
Time to Assemble:
My mother and I liked to split the cornbread in the bottom of a bowl. Others like to keep their cornbread on the side, and dunk it into the soup. Or you could do like Grandma Smith did, and use Fritos in place of cornbread. Like chili in a bag from the State Fair.
Next, ladle as much soup and beans as you want over the cornbread. There’s a lot more soup here than meets the eye – it’s a big bowl.
And garnish with chopped raw onion and droplets of hot sauce. I prefer the taste of Tabasco Green Jalapeno Sauce.
What’s not to love? Believe me, your house is going to smell great! And you and yours will feel warm, comfy, and loved.
- 1 pound of dried pinto beans, or use great northern, red beans, or a 13-bean mix
- 1 large smoked ham hock
- 1 large onion, chopped 1/4″ dice
- 3 large carrots, chopped 1/4″ dice
- 3 stalks of celery, chopped 1/4″ dice
- 1 jalapeno pepper, fine dice
- 2 cloves garlic, fine dice
- 1-2 cups chicken stock or water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- The night before, put the dried beans in a strainer and thoroughly rinse. Pour the beans into a large mixing bowl, and cover with water. Soak the beans overnight.
- In the morning our when you’re ready to make the soup, drain the beans, and thoroughly rinse them again.
- Put the beans in a 5-qt dutch oven. Add the ham hock. Add just enough water so that the ham hock is submerged.
- Over medium-high heat, bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer. After a few minutes, foam will begin to appear floating on top of the liquid. With a large spoon, skim off the foam and discard.
- Put the lid on the pot. Make sure the liquid gently simmers and does not boil. Boiling will make beans soft on the outside and hard in the middle.
- Cook for two hours, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks on the bottom of the pot.
- Remove the lid. Add the vegetables, garlic, salt and pepper.
- Add 1-2 cups of chicken stock, depending on how thick or thin you like your soup.
- Cook for another one to two hours, again stirring occasionally.
- Check for seasoning and serve.