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Beans and ham, beans and cornbread, navy bean soup, ham-bone soup, Senate bean soup: no matter what you call it, this old Southern favorite that’s not quite soup, not quite vegetable stew can include pork ham, turkey ham, or no animal flesh at all. The beans can be pretty darn healthy, really healthy, or phenomenally healthy. Today I’m going to give you all three variations (smidgen of red meat for a low-fat bowl, ultra low-fat bit of poultry, or fat-free vegetarian) on classic Southern beans, any of which can be prepared on the stove top or in a slow cooker. Oh, they are soooooo good!To duplicate the Southern experience, serve these beans with cornbread (to complete your vegetarian protein), good greens (like turnip or collard), and pickles, chow-chow, or tobasco. My ancestors made these beans on the top of a wood stove or in a kitchen fire in a big cast iron pot in colder months. They might have cooked them all day, slowly, on a March or April day after they’d polished off an Easter country ham and just had the bone left. They might have gathered wild greens, or perhaps they had greens growing in their kitchen garden. Regardless, these beans with cornbread and greens made great healthy, frugal cuisine then, just as they do today. They are a classic case of “meat and three,” where any meat included is a seasoning, not the main focus of the dish, and they are a great choice for today’s environmentally and economically conscious culture.
makes about 7 cups
- ½ large yellow onion (a full cup diced, give or take a bit)
- 1 cup to 1 ½ cups (split) carrots, diced
- 1 cup to 1 ½ cups (split) celery, diced
the dried beans:
- 1 1/2 cups dried navy beans (the classic!), pinto beans (more like chili), black beans (think southwest), or another bean like Jacob’s cattle or Anasazi (I used navy beans, black beans, and Anasazi!)
- 5 -6 ½ cups water, vegetable broth, chicken stock, or turkey stock (or 1/2 smoked turkey stock*, half water)
Use the larger amount for Anasazi beans, the lesser for most other dried beans. (Anasazi beans need 4 cups of water for every 1 cup of beans, whereas other beans of similar size need 3 cups of water for every one cup of beans. We’re adding ½ cup more liquid to make the beans a little brothier.)
optional animal products:
- 1 ham bone
- 2-3 slices pork bacon, diced, rendered, and drained of fat (save it!)
- ¼ cup turkey ham steak, diced
Stove top method:
Measure, sort through for pebbles, and rinse the beans—something you should do with all dried beans. Soak the beans overnight or at least all day in a very heavy-bottomed stockpot or a cast iron Dutch oven. This recipe may be a bit too big for a 2-quart Dutch oven, but you could start with just a portion of the liquid and add the rest as the beans absorb it. You’ll need to cover the beans by at least double or possibly even triple the depth of water. (You could easily start soaking the beans in the morning and then cook them in the late afternoon.) Drain off the soaking liquid and add the cooking liquid (water, stock), onions, half of the carrots and celery, and any animal product you are adding. Simmer beans, covered, for 1 ½ to 2 hours (less for Anasazi, more for black, the full two hours for navy). Stir occasionally, but if you’ve picked a suitably heavy pot, you shouldn’t have to worry much about sticking. After the initial cooking time, add the rest of the carrots and celery and cook the beans for ½ hour to 1 hour to finish softening them. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Slow Cooker (Crock Pot) Method
Measure, sort through for pebbles, and rinse the beans—something you should do with all dried beans. Add the beans, the chopped onion, half of the carrots and celery, all of the optional animal flesh and/or bone, and all of the liquid to a slow cooker (known often by the trade-marked name Crock Pot). Put on the lid and set the slow cooker to low. Let the beans cook all day. An hour or so before supper (depending on the type of beans—more time for navy beans, less for black and Anasazi–and your slow cooker), add the rest of the carrots and celery and crank the slow cooker to high for about an hour to finish cooking the beans. What if you come home and the beans are already soft? You could turn off the beans, saute the carrots and celery, add them to the beans, and then turn on the cooker right before dinner to reheat it. Add salt and pepper to taste.
In order to get the best nutrition from these beans, serve them with whole-grain cornbread (recipe to follow in a future blog post) to make a complete protein (something you can get by mixing whole grains with beans). Add gently cooked seasonal greens, like mustard greens, turnip greens, or collard greens—or you could even just make a side salad of healthy baby greens. Serve with cucumber pickles like bread-and-butter or chow-chow (pickled vegetables). Some people add pickle juice or tobasco hot sauce to the beans and greens.
*Smoked turkey stock. Did you smoke a turkey this year or get one as a gift? Did you toss the carcass? Don’t do that again! For a great smoky stock, cover the smoked-turkey carcass with water, add aromatics (a stalk of celery, some onion chunks, herbs), and simmer for about two hours. Strain off the bones, vegetables, and herbs then cool the stock. Skim off the opaque fat that forms at the top. Use your stock in soups and beans. I recommend using it for no more than half of the liquid in a recipe, since it is quite strong.
Do you have questions about cooking with dried beans, Southern food, or vegetarian options? I’ll do my best to answer them!
I’ve posted a traditional, hearty cornbread recipe. It is all corn meal and minimally sweet, like people used to eat before every bread came to taste like dessert.
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