Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pinto Beans and Ham

Captain's Log

I've been doing some reflection, and can you believe it was just a year ago that I'd (finally) gotten a job? Seven months out here, countless applications. Of course I was particular about the kinds of jobs I applied to, but still it was quite a long dry spell! (For the unfamiliar, I work at a little grocery store that is operated by a restaurant group. It's their first venture into retail and it's been really interesting watching the company adapt to customer needs, figure out how to properly use the space, how to re-order and stock things efficiently. How to manage staff. And so forth.) The store was still under construction, not open to the public, and we were training in a nearby restaurant. Even now we're three weeks away from the anniversary of opening. It was cool and rainy much of that time. I and my colleagues were so curious about what the store would be like. It felt like such an experiment. 

Anyway, this has nothing to do with today's post. 

I am a huge fan of bean soup. Of the beans + ham variety. Split pea, yes please! Red beans, pass 'em over! And for today: Pinto beans! Beans are so inexpensive and such a good source of nutrition. I never really thought about this as a kid, when we'd have beans fairly regularly, but it also makes a huge difference if you cook them from their dry form rather than use them from a can. If you use beans from a can, I think they just taste like the water they were packed in. If you cook them yourself, they produce  a lovely hearty broth which is simply like no other. 

My method for cooking beans is pretty straightforward:

- 1 lb beans, your choice what kind (red, pinto, white.. all amazing. I haven't worked much with black beans so that's more of a wild card)
- some carrots
- an onion
- some celery
- a few cloves garlic
- broth (chicken or vegetable, though honestly plain water would work too)
- thyme sprigs, bay leaf
- salt, pepper
- a ham bone, ideally with some ham left on it (I've done this with a purchased ham steak and it's not as good. Thus: I recommend freezing that holiday ham bone and using it a few months later.)

I take the dry beans and pick through them to make sure there are no stones, twigs, etc., left in them.
the speckled beauties clatter so nicely when you sort through them
You can soak the beans in some water overnight to speed along the cooking process. Just pour water over the beans, enough to cover them, and be sure to pour out that water the next day before cooking. There's also a "quick soak" method wherein you pour boiling water over the beans and let them sit for an hour, then pour it out. Me? I don't soak at all. I don't make beans when I'm in a hurry. Also, some say the soaking can reduce the amount of compounds that can make beans so, um, digestively musical, but I personally have not noticed a difference either way. (For some light reading: NPR does it again.)

I set the dry beans aside while I prep veggies.

I dropped this onion in the grocery parking lot and chased it, child-with-a-balloon-style,
for farther than I should have. Hence the ugly bruised appearance.
Quick poll: do you peel your carrots?
I also cut celery but for some reason didn't photograph it.

I sauté the veggies in some olive oil with a little salt and pepper until they're softened.
And then I added some ham. This is leftover from Christmas (!).
Spotted: a bay leaf. Thyme sprigs are good too.
Then I added the big ham bone and some chicken broth. I've done this with water, instead of broth, and also with half-water, half-broth, and it's always awesome.
Pro tip: Beans, unlike pasta, do not like/need a lot of liquid circulating around them. Pasta likes room to groove and the more boiling water, the better it'll cook. Beans, on the other hand, are more likely to break down and get mushy if you put too much liquid in. You want to just barely cover the beans. 

I got myself in a little pickle with this huge ham bone because, as you can see, it's too big for my soup pot and it's mostly sticking out of the soup. Ideally it would be fully submerged. I fought the urge to add more liquid and instead just made an effort to stir and turn the bone often so the soup got exposed to the bone as much as possible. There's a lot of good flavor in there!

And now you just let it cook for anywhere from 1-3 hours until the beans and veggies are tender and all the flavors have melded. Taste as you go and add salt/pepper as needed. If it looks dry, add more water or broth. Take care not to scorch: beans can settle on the bottom of the pan and if the heat is too high or you haven't stirred often enough, they can burn. Happily, as the soup cooked down, my ham bone found its way into the soup with a little more ease.
When it's ready, take out the bone and other ham pieces. Let them cool enough to handle, then cut up any edible ham pieces into a bite-sizes. Discard fat, etc. Feed a meaty morsel to your favorite pet. Add back into the soup. If you want this to be more of a stew than a soup, you can ladle out some of the bean broth and freeze it for later soup use. If you want it to be nice and brothy, you can add even more liquid. I like to err on the thick side and add liquid to taste later on.
Let it cool before storing in refrigerator. 

Traditionally beans and ham are eaten with cornbread or rice. I intended to make rice, but you know what? It's totally fine on its own, without an added carb. 

Also, of course, this is terrific as a frozen soup to be thawed at your convenience. I usually do both---eat it for a few days, but freeze at least half for later. Heads up: Bean-based soups, when chilled fully, become solid! Or mostly solid. This is normal. They loosen back up when heated.

A couple of days later I had this for lunch and wanted to mix it up a little… I scooped a smallish quantity of the soup into a little soup pot, added water to loosen it up, and I added some kale. Simmered for 6-7 mins or until the kale was to my liking. It needed a little salt after the dilution, but otherwise there was a ton of flavor still. Other optional amazing add-ons: Hot sauce! Or a drizzle of olive oil, Italian-style. Or a sprinkle of parmesan, also Italian-style.

Frozen, ready for action at a moment's notice

1 comment:

  1. Another fine southern dish that looks just marvelous! re; Carrots--sometimes I peel em; sometimes I don't. Actually, I don't think I ever put them in bean soup, but it does sound like a great idea.