Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Favorite Biscotti

Not only is the recipe I'm posting today my favorite recipe for is my favorite version of my favorite recipe. I posted the Christmas version with dried cranberries and pistachios two years ago. In that post I shared the reason that this is such an exceptional recipe (hint: it has more butter than most recipes). I also mentioned that I occasionally make the biscotti with almonds and chocolate instead of pistachios and cranberries. It is that version that I'm posting today.

Delicately perfumed with orange and almond... Punctuated with dark chocolate... Light and tender—with just the right amount of crunch.... A perfect munching or dipping cookie. I love them. I think you will too.

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (270g)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
2 oz. (1/2 c.) lightly toasted slivered, blanched almonds
2 oz. (1/3 c.) mini chocolate chips (or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped medium fine)
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. plus 2 T. sugar (175g)
Zest of 1 large orange
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
milk for brushing
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, nuts and chocolate; set aside.

Cream butter, sugar and orange zest until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients just until incorporated. The dough may be used immediately—although it is somewhat easier to manage when chilled until firm.

Divide the dough into two or three pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, form each piece into a 1- to 1 1/2-inch log. Set the logs on the parchment lined cookie sheet about 4-inches apart (If you make three thinner logs you may need to bake in 1 batch of 2 and 1 batch of 1 log depending on the width of your baking sheet). Flatten slightly.

Brush the logs with milk and sprinkle generously with Turbinado sugar.

Bake in a 325° oven until set & golden brown—about 25 to 30 minutes (the cookies should be spring back just like a cake). Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes.

Slice on the diagonal into generous 1/2-inch slices. Lay the slices on their sides and return the sheets to the oven for another 5 minutes.

Turn the cookies over and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes—or until the cookies are just beginning to turn golden on the edges. Cool completely before wrapping air tight.

Makes about 60 small biscotti or 40 medium-sized biscotti.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Start of Spring Onion Season and Fusilli with Swiss Chard & Italian Sausage

By the time the farmers' market opens for the year I am thoroughly tired of the onions that are available to me at the grocery store. Typically storage onions from the previous growing season, their skins are tough and thick and the onions themselves are sharp, dry and—more often than not—beginning to sprout. They require longer cooking to soften both their texture and their taste—and even then, their quality isn't that great. So it is always such a pleasure to evict those old storage onions from my cooking after I bring home the first bunches of Spring onions. They are one of the first things to appear at the market and their presence in my kitchen always makes me feel like Spring has truly arrived (even in a year—like this one—when the actual weather doesn't agree).

If you are unfamiliar with Spring onions, they are exactly what their name implies...onions that are harvested in the Spring. They are the onions that are thinned from the rows as the main crop onions (white, yellow, red, etc.) grow and increase in size. I suspect though that many growers plant extra rows just for the Spring harvest so they will have plenty to meet the demand. Spring onions are delicious.

You will recognize Spring onions at the market because they still have their greens attached. They come in all sizes—from very thin, pencil-sized ones to fatter, baby leek-sized ones to small- and medium-sized ones that are beginning to produce a bulb (anywhere from the size of a large marble on up to a golf ball). When you get them home, store them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. To use them, trim away the root and rinse them well (particularly at the point where the green begins to flair out from the white and where sand and grit like to collect). The whole onion is useable, although I typically only use a quantity of the green that is equivalent to the quantity of white (the greens can be very long).

Thinly sliced spring onions

Since the early, pencil-thin, Spring onions look very much like the scallions (or green onions) that are sold year round at the grocery store, people often wonder how a scallion is different from a Spring onion. It is difficult to find a consistent answer to this question, but I will share what is my best guess. Scallions are just another variety of onion—one that never forms a bulb and is intended to be harvested and used with the green attached. Because these onions don't expand to form a bulb, it isn't necessary to thin the rows as with the bulb-ing varieties of onions. Consequently, scallions probably do not make up a large part of the "Spring" onion crop. Frankly, I have always considered scallions to be Spring onion "wannabes" since they never seem to be as tender and nice as Spring onions—but this could just be because a local, fresh onion of any variety will be better than one that has been harvested, stored and then shipped for grocery store sale. If you want to know what variety of onion you are getting when you purchase a Spring onion, just ask the grower—they will be happy to tell you.

As I mentioned at the start, once Spring onions appear, they almost completely replace regular onions in my cooking—even in recipes that "call for" regular onions. Frittatas and tortillas, grain pilafs and recipe is safe...all get Spring makeovers once the Spring onions arrive. The Swiss Chard pasta we had for dinner last night is a great example. This is a pasta that I make often throughout the fall and winter months. From Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food, the original recipe is kind of hearty, calling for lightly caramelized red onions in addition to the Swiss Chard and Italian Sausage. But last night, as I considered what I was going to do with the beautiful small leaves of Rainbow Chard I had purchased at last Saturday's market (from Goode Acres), it occurred to me that a more delicate version of this pasta—using some Spring onions, along with a bit of lemon zest, in place of the red onions—would be just the thing. And it was. Hello Spring...

Fusilli with Swiss Chard, Sausage & Spring Onions

2 T. Olive oil
1/2 lb. Italian Sausage, casings removed
4 large Spring Onions—white and a few inches of the green, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
salt & pepper, to taste
A pinch of red pepper flakes
Zest of a small lemon
2 bunches Swiss Chard, stems removed (about 10 to 12 oz. trimmed weight)—sliced cross-wise into 1-inch wide ribbons and rinsed in several changes of water to remove all grit
1 lb. Fusilli, or other short sturdy pasta
Extra Virgin Olive oil
1/3 c. (1 oz.) Freshly grated Pecorino

Heat the oil in a wide sauté pan over medium heat. Crumble the sausage and add to the pan. (Note: it is easier to crumble the sausage—which might be a bit sticky—if you lightly oil your fingertips.) Cook until browned and cooked through—about 5 minutes.

Remove the sausage and add the onion to the pan along with a pinch of salt, the pepper flakes and the lemon zest. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened—5 minutes or less.

(If the pan seems dry or the sausage was very lean, add a bit more olive oil). Begin to add the chard to the pan a handful at a time, turning with tongs as you add it so that it will become coated in the fat and onions and will begin to collapse. If there is no water clinging to the leaves (from washing), add a few tablespoons of water. Reduce the heat, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chard is just tender (not mushy). Return the sausage to the pan. Set aside and keep warm while the pasta cooks.

While the chard is cooking, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. After adding the sausage back to the chard, drop the pasta into the boiling salted water and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the fusilli to the chard and toss to combine. If it seems dry, add a bit of reserved pasta water. Scatter the cheese over the pasta, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil and toss again. Serve, garnished with more cheese, if you like. Serves 4 to 6.

Note: During the fall and winter months I make this pasta exactly as it appears in Alice Waters' cookbook The Art of Simple Food. Omit the lemon zest and use a thinly sliced red onion instead of the spring onions. After removing the sausage from the pan, add the onion and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to caramelize a bit.

Begin adding the chard and proceed with the recipe as written.

(Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters)

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Beautiful Asparagus Tart

As we head into asparagus season I thought I would finally post one of my all time favorite asparagus recipes—a beautiful tart. Adapted from a special "Paris issue" of Gourmet magazine, I have been teaching this tart annually in a popular class called "Everyday French" for at least ten years. I never get tired of it. It is so simple (nothing more than a bare bones asparagus quiche, really)...but because of the unusual shape of the crust it never fails to impress.

Instead of a traditional tart pan, the crust for this tart is fitted into a pizza pan. This wide, shallow crust is perfect for displaying a single layer of asparagus arranged like the spokes of a wheel. Whether presented whole or in slices, this tart really is lovely. For my private dinner clients, I like to serve it in narrow wedges alongside a salad. It makes an elegant first course. When I make it at home, I cut it into six fat wedges and serve it as an entrée (also accompanied by a salad).

You would think that this style of crust would be limiting, but in fact it is not. Any vegetable that can be cut into large, wide slices can probably be arranged attractively in this crust. In early summer I like to make the tart with broiled/grilled slices of zucchini. Last August I used this style of crust as a base for a nice Eggplant & Goat Cheese tart. And even if you don't have vegetables that can be arranged artistically in the shell, you can still use this crust for a myriad of different fillings...especially if you are one who (like me) likes a larger proportion of crisp, flaky crust to filling. A couple of years ago when I had one of these shells in my freezer I made a delicious and memorable impromptu tart with spinach and artichokes.

When you read through the recipe for the asparagus tart you will notice that asparagus is supposed to be peeled. This may sound like a tedious and time consuming activity, but since the tart only uses about a pound of asparagus, peeling it doesn't really add that much extra time. More importantly, the cooked peeled asparagus will have a uniformly soft and tender texture—much more in harmony with the soft egg custard than asparagus that has not had its slightly tough, stringy exterior removed. So please don't skip this step. As always, it's the little attentions to detail that make a big difference in the end result.

Asparagus & Gruyère Tart

1 12- to 13-inch tart shell, blind baked (see below)
1 to 1 1/4 lb. asparagus
4 oz. Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
2 eggs
1 c. heavy cream
salt & pepper

Trim the asparagus into 5- or 6-inch lengths (depending on the size of your pizza pan). Starting about 2 inches down from the tips, peel the asparagus. In a pan of boiling salted water, blanch the asparagus until tender—2 or 3 minutes for thin; 5 minutes or so for thick. Drain and refresh in an ice bath or under cold running water. Pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Scatter about 2/3 of the cheese over the baked crust.

Arrange the asparagus spears like the spokes of a wheel—with the tips at the outer edge, pointing out.

Whisk together the eggs and the cream. Season with salt and pepper—and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg if you like.

Pour the custard over the asparagus, jiggling the pan a bit so the custard will be evenly distributed. Scatter the remaining cheese over all.

Bake the tart until the custard is set—about 20 minutes. Slide the tart under the broiler to brown slightly. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet, March 2001)

Printable recipe

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200g)
1/2 t. salt
11 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (150g)
1/4 to 1/3 c. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 1/4 c. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. Form the finished dough into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, let dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 12- to 13-inch pizza pan and set it aside. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle that is about 1/8- to 1/6–inch thick and is about 15 inches across. Trim any ragged edges. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Transfer it to the prepared pan. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it. Fold the edges to form a ½-inch rim of a double thickness of dough. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To blind bake, line the pastry with aluminum foil or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners and edges. Add a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake in a 400° oven for 10 to 18 minutes. When the pastry begins to color on the edges, remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a golden brown (another 5 to 10 minutes).

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fresh Strawberry Ice Cream...and the Promise of Spring

I mentioned in a previous post that we are experiencing an unusually cold spring in Kansas City. And nothing much has changed...the cold has continued to hang on. Today I am wishing I still had some firewood left. I would complain at length about the weather, but I was reminded this morning that it could be much worse. I logged onto Facebook to see a picture my sister-in-law took from her back deck (in Minnesota)....this morning....

At least the view out my back window looks a bit like spring (although more like mid-March than mid-April).

Considering the weather, it might seem a bit odd that I am posting a recipe for ice cream. But the explanation is really pretty straightforward. Last night I taught a class featuring a dessert made with ice cream. Back in mid-February—when I scheduled my April classes—Profiteroles with Strawberry Ice Cream and Chocolate Sauce seemed like the perfect ending for a mid-April class featuring dishes one might find in a bistro in Paris. So, even if the weather isn't perfectly appropriate, I made—and served—some delicious strawberry ice cream. (No one complained.)

Obviously I didn't have any local strawberries to work with, but the "imports" from California were actually very nice.

If you wait and make this ice cream when you have access to perfectly ripe local strawberries, you will be in heaven....this is "strawberries and cream" at its best.

You might be wondering where the profiteroles and chocolate sauce are. Unfortunately, I didn't bring any of that home...just the ice cream. But I did happen to have some brownies on hand. They made a nice—very American—substitution....and were perfect for a sweet finish to my lunch.

And as I enjoyed my strawberry ice cream...and looked outside across the yards on this cold, blustery day—with the beautiful greens and the beginnings of the early season bloom cycle—I was reminded that the warmth of spring (and the local strawberries) will eventually have to come.

Fresh Strawberry Ice Cream

1 lb. strawberries (about 1 1/2 pints), washed & hulled
1 c. sugar
2 c. cold heavy cream
1 c. milk
8 egg yolks
1 t. vanilla
a pinch of salt

Mash the strawberries with a potato masher or pass them through a food mill; if you prefer not to have chunks in your ice cream, purée the strawberries in the food processor. Stir in 1/4 c. of the sugar. Set aside and let macerate for at least 1 hour (overnight in the refrigerator is even better—the longer the strawberries and sugar sit together, the less likely your ice cream will have frosty little bits of strawberries).

Place the milk and 1 cup of the cream in a medium-sized, non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. While the milk mixture is heating, add the cold cream to the bowl of strawberries; set aside and keep cold. Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 3/4 c. of sugar until thick. When the milk boils, temper the egg yolks by gradually whisking in about a half cup of the hot milk mixture. Stir the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan and place the pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard begins to thicken and a path forms when you draw your finger across the custard-coated back side of the spoon—if you have an instant-read thermometer it should read about 175° (don't let it go much higher—the eggs will scramble at 180°). Stop the cooking process by immediately straining the custard into the bowl of cold strawberries and cream. Stir in the vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until cold, stirring occasionally. (Speed up the chilling process by setting the bowl of custard in an ice bath.).  Cover until ready to use.

Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to a freezer container and freeze for an hour or two before serving. Makes about 5 cups of ice cream.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pasta with Mushrooms, Asparagus & the last of the Easter Ham

We are finally to the end of our Easter ham. It has made its way into soup, sandwiches (last night an open faced, warm sandwich with asparagus and a "sunny side up" egg on top) and—of course—pasta. The recipe for the pasta is originally from a class I taught several years ago for Williams-Sonoma. However, I have made it so often and over so many years that at this point it bears little resemblance to the original. I always vary it a bit—depending on what I have on hand—morels instead of "ordinary" mushrooms, spring onions instead of shallots, etc. I posted a meatless version a few years ago. This time, I varied the type of ham.

Typically I prepare this pasta with prosciutto....but as I looked at the chunky little end piece of my American-style smoked ham, I thought it would make a fine stand in for the prosciutto. Since a prosciutto is dry-cured and my Easter ham was wet-cured (brined), I decided to use half again as much as I would have of the prosciutto to make up for the water loss and shrinkage that I knew would occur when the wetter ham hit the sauté pan. But you should (as always) use an amount that pleases you...remembering that the ham in this recipe is a supporting player (providing richness and salt) and it shouldn't be allowed to overpower the asparagus and mushrooms.

When you make this pasta, you will find it to be surprisingly hearty and full flavored. I usually think of springtime asparagus pastas as being light and fresh. But the foundation of the caramelized mushrooms and small amount of sautéed ham gives a rich—frankly meaty—character to this dish (far beyond what you would expect for such a small amount of actual meat).

It made for an especially nice end for my Easter ham...and no matter what kind of ham you have, a perfect dish for an early spring evening.

Penne Pasta with Mushrooms, Asparagus & Ham

2 to 4 T. olive oil
8 oz. mixed mushrooms, sliced in uniform pieces
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
3 oz. smoked ham, cut in a 1/8-inch dice (see notes)
1/4 t. pepper flakes
1 to 2 T. minced Italian flat leaf parsley
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut on the diagonal in 2-inch lengths
1 lb. penne pasta
1/2 to 2/3 c. freshly grated Pecorino Romano, Parmesan or a combination of the two

Ingredients for half a recipe

Heat 2 T. olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms. Sauté, regulating the heat to maintain an active sizzle, until the mushrooms are browned and tender—about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat, season with salt and pepper, add more oil if necessary, and add the shallots, ham & pepper flakes. Cook until the shallots are soft and caramelized and the ham is beginning to turn golden brown—about 5 minutes. Toss in the parsley and reduce the heat to the lowest setting while you finish cooking the pasta and asparagus.

Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook for 4 or 5 minutes—or until the pasta is about half cooked. Add the asparagus and continue to cook until the pasta is al dente and the asparagus is tender—about 4 minutes more. (See notes for alternate method.) Drain, reserving some of the cooking water. Add the pasta and asparagus to the mushrooms along with a generous drizzle of olive oil and toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add some of the cooking water. Add a few tablespoons of the cheese and toss again. Divide among serving plates, sprinkle with more cheese and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.


• When I don't have leftover ham, I make this pasta with prosciutto—use 2 oz. for the full recipe. It is ideal for the end bit which can be easily diced into little pieces. When you go to the deli/cured meats counter to get your prosciutto, ask if they have any of the end chunk—this portion doesn't make beautiful, thin slices and they will frequently sell it to you at a lower price (just ask).

• If you are worried about getting your pasta and asparagus to the proper done-ness simultaneously, simply cook the asparagus first: Bring the water to a boil. Salt it and add the asparagus. When the asparagus is cooked to your liking, scoop it out and spread on a baking sheet. Drop the pasta and cook until al dente. About a minute before the pasta is done, add the asparagus to the pan with the mushrooms and toss to combine. Add the drained pasta and proceed as directed.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ham & Bean Soup

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 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)

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