Spring seems very late this year. I am hesitant to ever use the word "normal" to describe our Midwestern weather...but even so, this year does seem a bit unusual...the grass is just now beginning to green up a bit. I heard the weatherman use the phrase "ridiculously cold" to describe our current April temperatures. Last night, since we were under a hard freeze warning, I went out and picked the few daffodils that have been brave enough to bloom and brought them indoors rather than allow them to be lost to the cold. We have enjoyed them today...along with a fire in the fireplace from the last of the year's firewood.
The lateness of spring, combined with the fact that Easter was a bit early this year, put me in the unusual position of wanting to make Ham & Bean soup with the remains of our Easter ham. It is a mystery to me why the Easter holiday is traditionally celebrated with the consumption of a pork product...but so it is. Typically our leftover Easter ham is destined for sandwiches (which is just fine with me...I love a good ham sandwich)....or maybe a casserole with potatoes or a pasta with asparagus...but never ham & bean soup. Ham & bean soup is where the leftovers of a Christmas....or New Years... ham end up. And since my family almost never has ham over the winter holiday, I almost never get to make real Ham & Bean Soup...and by "real", I mean made with a meaty ham bone instead of a diced chunk of boneless ham.
The ham and bean soup that I make is—to borrow the weatherman's word—ridiculously simple. In fact, it is a great example of the magic of simplicity. In her book "The Supper Book" Marion Cunningham tells the charming story of how as a young bride she attempted to replicate her mother-in-law's delicious ham & bean soup for her husband. After much trial and error she finally gave up and just asked her mother-in-law for the recipe. When the recipe arrived she was shocked to discover that the soup had only four ingredients—ham, beans, onions & water. She said it was a lesson she never forgot—sometimes less really is more.
I have only changed her recipe in one respect. Instead of throwing all of the ingredients in a pot and just letting it cook, I begin by softening the onions in a bit of fat. I use olive oil, but butter would be good too. I don't think I ever make soup without including this step—it draws out the sweetness of the onions and serves to infuse the fat with their flavor...fat that will then permeate the entire soup. But if you prefer, you may make the soup without this step (I'm sure the soup will still be delicious.)
I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever tasted ham & bean soup. I was staying for a week with my paternal grandparents. Unlike Marion Cunningham's husband, my Dad must not have liked his mother's ham & bean soup, because it had never appeared on the table at my house. My grandparents were a bit mystified that I had never had it and that I didn't even know what it was. I remember that I thought it was delicious. I came home asking for it (to no avail, if memory serves).
The soup I had that first time was very thick, made with butter beans (a small lima bean) and served spooned over a warm, split biscuit. The soup I make is not as thick as my Grandma's. And I don't think I have ever made it with butter beans. I always use Great Northerns. But I imagine any bean would be good when paired with the ham. Even with these slight changes, I think my ham & bean soup is essentially the same one my grandmother (and countless others) would have made. As for the biscuit, years later I learned from a colleague that in her family they always served Ham & Bean soup ladled over warm, buttered cornbread. I have adopted this pairing of ham & beans with cornbread...but I keep the cornbread out of the soup bowl and serve it on the side (with lots of butter).
All in all, today turned out to be an extraordinary Spring day...one that encouraged stopping to ponder and appreciate the uniqueness of the moment: Sunny, bright blue April skies and daffodils ... accompanied by a cold breeze, a crackling fire and a warm bowl of Easter Ham & Bean soup.
Ham & Bean Soup
1 lb. dried white beans (Great Northern, Baby limas, Navy, etc.)
olive oil or butter
2 medium onions (about 1 lb), diced
1 meaty ham bone, or 2 cups diced ham
Rinse the beans and place in a deep container (large enough to hold at least twice the volume of beans). Fill the container with cold water and let the beans soak overnight. I put my soaking beans in the refrigerator, but if your room is cool, they can be left at room temperature. (If you are short on time you can use the quick soak method described in my post for White Bean Soup with Sausage & Swiss Chard.)
Drain the beans and rinse. Warm a tablespoon or two of oil or butter in a 6 quart pot set over moderate heat. Add the onions and sweat briefly so that the onions will begin to soften. Add the beans and the ham bone (or chopped ham) . Add cold water to cover the beans by about an inch to an inch and a half. Bring to a simmer. Skim away and discard any foam that comes to the surface. Continue to cook the soup at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally.
After the soup has been cooking for about an hour, remove the ham bone and pull all the meat away from the bone. Return the bone to the pot and continue to simmer the soup until the beans are very tender—about another half hour. While the soup continues to simmer, go through the meat from the bone and remove any hard bits of gristle or excess fat and discard. Coarsely chop the meat and return it to the pot.
As the soup simmers, if it becomes too thick, simply add a little water to thin it to your preferred consistency. When the beans are tender, taste and correct the seasoning. Depending on your ham, you may or may not need to add more salt. Add a generous grinding of black pepper and divide among serving bowls. Serve with cornbread or biscuits on the side. Serves 6.
(Recipe adapted from The Supper Book by Marion Cunningham)