Originally published April 15, 2007
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
A SPIRAL-SLICED bone-in ham still makes a great centerpiece for a family gathering. It’s casual, affordable and kind of fun. And when dinner’s over, that great big bone-in ham is still around to become the foundation for a few more meals.
Ham and Swiss cheese quiche, anyone? We’ve had ham in Creole jambalaya, Denver omelets and Cuban sandwiches — that’s ham layered with cold roast pork, yellow mustard, pickles and cheese, all pressed inside a hoagie roll between two hot cast-iron skillets. We’ve done Aloha Pizza with ham and pineapple, plus a casserole of ham and peas with macaroni in white sauce. Baked under a layer of buttered breadcrumbs, it was delicious.
But sooner or later, using up that ham becomes a challenge. Maybe it’s because ham is so rich, maybe because it’s so salty, but mostly because it’s just so darn big. We can never seem to finish it off. As my empty-nester sister-in-law once put it, “Eternity is two people and a ham.”
So, if it’s a week after the holiday meal and you find yourself staring into a refrigerator still laden with more ham than you need to make a sandwich, it might be time to make soup.
But before you reach for that bag of split peas, consider this: creamy white beans, simmered slowly with the ham bone. To me, white beans flavored with ham constitutes one of the great flavor combinations of all time. Tender sautéed onions and a generous handful of bright green parsley finish it off. To round out the meal, a pan of skillet cornbread is not only recommended; it’s required.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Deep South, where beans and cornbread were virtually the traditional food of my people, but to me, this simple supper tastes even better and makes more sense on a cool spring evening in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, I like white beans with ham so much that even after I’m tired of ham, I still look forward to this soup.
White Bean and Ham Soup
I’ve found I get more flavor for the soup by making a ham stock first by boiling the ham bone for an hour or so before I add the beans.
8 cups water
1 ham bone
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional salt to taste
1 pound (about 2 cups) white navy beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thinly
8 ounces (about 2 cups) ham, cut into julienne strips
1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
½ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1. To make a ham stock in which to cook the beans, put the water, ham bone, bay leaf and salt in a large soup pot over high heat, and bring the water to a full, rolling boil. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and let the bone simmer for an hour or so.
2. To quick-soak the white beans, add the beans to the simmering ham stock, and turn off the heat. Allow the beans to soak in the hot water for 1 hour.
3. Cook the beans. When the beans have soaked up the hot ham stock and sunk to the bottom of the pan, bring the heat back to high and get the water boiling again, then reduce heat to low and allow the beans to simmer until they are tender, for about an hour.
4. When the beans are almost tender, put the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, and sauté the onion in the oil until it is soft and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced ham, and sauté another minute or so to warm the ham.
5. Add the sautéed onion and ham to the beans, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans and the onion are very tender, about another 10 minutes.
6. Season the soup to taste with freshly ground black pepper and additional kosher salt, if desired. Stir in the parsley, and serve hot with a pan of skillet cornbread.
Makes one 10-inch round
The hot skillet causes the batter around the edges of this cornbread to bake more quickly than the center, so you get a crisp brown crust around tender yellow cornbread. If you can find whole-grain cornmeal, it has a more-pronounced flavor than the more refined plain yellow stuff.
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup cornmeal, preferably whole-grain
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup corn oil or canola oil, plus 2 tablespoons for the pan
1 cup milk
1. Put a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.
3. In a separate, medium-size mixing bowl, whisk the egg with the sugar and oil until the mixture is perfectly smooth, then whisk in the milk.
4. Add the egg-and-milk mixture all at once to the flour-and-cornmeal mixture, and stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overmix; there is no need to stir out all the lumps.
5. With a pot holder, take the preheated cast-iron skillet out of the oven, and pour in the 2 tablespoons of oil. Gently swirl the skillet so the oil covers the inside surfaces. Transfer the batter to the oiled skillet, and bake until the bread is puffed in the center and golden-brown on top, about 15 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve hot.
— Greg Atkinson