With Ham Bone (or a Handy Substitute)
What to do with a leftover ham bone? There’s nothing better than a hearty soup (bean, lentil, split pea, you get the idea).
And with ham being a popular choice for Easter dinner, chances are that if you ever have a leftover ham bone, you have one right now. (Even if you don’t happen to have ham bone in the house, smoked ham shanks or ham hocks make an admirable substitute — and they’re available at every supermarket, and fairly cheap.)
So put that ham bone to use, and make one more amazing soup before your thoughts turn to warm weather outdoor grilling. How about White Bean and Potato Soup?
Recipe: White Bean and Potato Soup
You can make this recipe without potatoes, but I like to include them because they add extra flavor, and their starch helps thicken the soup. You can use any kind of white bean in this soup, but in the US, Great Northern beans and Navy beans are the two most readily available. I prefer Great Northerns. If you elect to use Navy beans, do note that cooking time may be somewhat less than for Great Northerns (usually about half an hour less).
There are three major steps to this recipe:
First, you need to begin making a stock with the ham bone. (This is a soup, so tasty stock is important.) You need a minimum of an hour and a half to develop good flavor, but I think 2½ hours is better.
Second, because Great Northern beans take about an hour and a half to cook, you’ll need to add them about an hour into the stock-making process. You’ll also add sautéed onions and garlic at this time.
Third, you need to add the potatoes to the pot 20 minutes or so before you judge the beans to be cooked and soft. (Cook the potatoes much longer and they’ll turn into mush.)
Depending on how thick you make the soup (how much water you add), this recipe makes about 5 quarts — enough to feed a crowd. Leftovers freeze well. This recipe takes about 2½ hours total; active time is 20 to 30 minutes.
- 1½ pounds dried white beans (Great Northern or Navy beans; see Notes)
- 1 ham bone or 2 - 3 smoked ham shanks or hocks (about 1 to 2 pounds or so; see Notes)
- ~12 cups water
- 1 whole onion, peeled and halved (for flavoring the stock)
- 1 additional large onion, peeled and diced (or 2 medium onions; 1¼ - 1¾ cups; exact measurement not critical)
- 4 - 5 cloves garlic, peeled and diced or sliced
- 1 - 2 ribs celery (very optional; I rarely include this; see Notes)
- 2 - 3 carrots, washed, peeled, and diced (very optional; I rarely include this; see Notes)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or neutral cooking oil
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1½ teaspoons dried thyme (or to taste)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional; I like spicy, so I often use a teaspoon)
- ~2 pounds waxy potatoes (Yukon golds are great)
- chopped parsley or Homemade Crouton as a garnish (optional; see Notes)
Although there are quite a few steps to this recipe, the preparation isn’t difficult. Read through the steps a time or two and you’ll discover that it’s a straightforward dish to prepare.
- Pick over beans (to remove any dirt or stones) and soak 8 hours or overnight in enough water to cover by several inches. (See Notes for quick-soak method.) I usually leave the beans out on the kitchen counter overnight, but you can refrigerate them if you’re worried that they may start to ferment.
- About 2½ hours before you want to serve the soup, place ham bone or ham shanks/hocks in a large pot (at least 6 quarts). If using ham shanks or hocks, rinse first.
- Peel and halve onion, and add to the pot.
- Add the 12 cups water, bring to simmer, and skim scum that will form.
- Simmer for one hour (this is to develop stock). By simmer, I mean tiny bubbles are rising to the surface and breaking; we’re not talking any kind of boiling action.
- At the hour mark (or a bit later; time isn’t critical for this step), drain the beans (Step 1) and add them to the pot with the ham bone. Peel and dice additional onion (I like ¼-inch dice, but anything up to ½ inch is fine); wash, peel, and dice carrots (if using); and wash, peel, and dice celery (if using).
- Peel and mince or slice garlic (I like to slice because I enjoy biting into largish pieces; most people prefer minced).
- Heat frying pan on medium heat. When hot, add oil. Immediately add diced onions, garlic, and carrots (if using), plus celery (if using). Season with salt and pepper, and sauté until onions are translucent (about 5 – 8 minutes).
- Add dried thyme and (optional) pepper flakes; sauté for about 30 seconds (to flavor the oil); add contents of frying pan to pot with ham bone and beans.
- Cook for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, scrub, peel, and cut potatoes into dice of ½ inch or a bit less. Cover with cold water so they don’t discolor.
- Check beans after they’ve been cooking for an hour. They should be soft, but not yet cooked. If they’re still hard — this may be the case if the beans are old — keeping cooking them until they’re almost, but not quite, done.
- Drain potatoes and add to the pot. Adjust water level in pot if necessary to achieve the consistency you prefer. Set timer for 20 minutes.
- Right after you set the timer, remove ham bone (or shanks), let cool briefly, then remove meat from bone. Dice into bite-size pieces.
- Remove the onion halves (that you added in Step 3) from the pot, and add the diced meat.
- When the 20-minute timer goes off (Step 13), test beans and potatoes for doneness (both should be soft but still hold their shape). Cook a few more minutes until done if necessary.
- When done, if you want the soup to have a less chunky, more homogenized texture, you can use a stick blender to liquefy it. (Be aware that if your stick blender has a plastic shaft, the hot liquid may crack it).
- Adjust seasoning and serve. A chopped parsley or Homemade Crouton garnish is a nice finishing touch.
- Quick-soak method for beans: Pick through the beans, then rinse them. Place beans in a large pot and cover with several inches of water. Bring to boil, and allow to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for at least one hour. Then drain, rinse, and proceed with recipe.
- Beans soaked overnight have slightly better texture (when cooked) than beans that are quick-soaked, but the difference is minimal. In fact, nowadays when I use dried beans, I almost always use the quick-soak method.
- Why soak dried beans? Because they cook much quicker when you rehydrate them. Most beans benefit from soaking. However, because lentils and split peas cook fairly quickly without rehydration, you can use them without soaking.
- A secondary benefit is that while rehydrating, the beans also release some of their flatulence-inducing sugars (oligosaccharides) into the water. When you discard the soaking water, you discard a few nutrients that have leeched into it. But you also discard some of the substance that can cause people to shy away from dried beans.
- Ham bone is great in this dish if you have one on hand. But if you don’t, substituting smoked ham shanks or hocks works well — their flavor is similar. Ham shanks have less bone and more meat than ham hocks, so I prefer them. The bone, however, does give good body to the stock. Quantity isn’t critical in soup making, though you should use at least 1 pound. I prefer a bit more, up to 2 pounds.
- If you have a ham bone but aren’t ready to use it right away, wrap it well in cling wrap or foil, put it inside a freezer bag, and freeze for up to a month.
- The ham bone should give your broth a nice ham flavor. But , wrap it well in cling wrap or foil, put it inside a freezer bag, and freeze for up to a month. The ham bone should give your broth a nice ham flavor. But if you want to up the flavor quotient, you could add a tablespoon or so of ham base (commercially prepared ham stock that’s been reduced to a paste). My favorite brand is “Better than Bouillon,” which many supermarkets carry (you can also order it from Amazon). I’ve heard great things about Minor’s Brand, though I haven’t used it. They sell primarily to restaurants and other commercial entities, but individuals can order through their website. Either Great Northern or Navy beans work in this recipe. I virtually always use Great Northern beans, for no particularly good reason except that I like them. If you prefer Navy beans, go for it — but remember that their cooking time tends to be a bit less. However, if you cook them longer it’s no tragedy in this dish (it’s a soup!).
- Although celery and carrots are common in bean soups, I find they don’t add a great deal to this one. But use them if you prefer.
- Although the recipe specifies 1½ pounds of beans, you can easily up that to 2 pounds if you prefer. Just add a bit more water to the pot.
- A Homemade Crouton garnish is nice on this soup. If you decide to do this, you can make them while the soup simmers in Step 11.
- This isn’t a quick recipe, so you’ll want to prepare it on a day when you’re around the house — perhaps on a weekend. However, as noted above, it freezes quite well. You can take this from the freezer, put it in a saucepan with a bit of water, and be eating soup in about 20 minutes. When reheating, you’ll want to watch the pot a bit after the first 5 minutes so the soup doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan. Just stir it from time to time to prevent this.
Other Uses for Ham Bone
Soup is always my favorite way to use ham bone — particularly soup made with legumes or pulses. If you’re not in the mood for white beans, split peas are another good option. Just follow the directions for Split Pea Soup with Greens but substitute ham bone for the ham shanks. (You can omit the greens if you prefer.) Because ham bones typically weigh more than ham shanks, you may want to increase the quantity of split peas to a pound and a half or two pounds.
You could also make a pinto bean or black bean soup using the same formula. And ham bone is traditional when making Red Beans and Rice (a recipe I haven’t yet written about, but will someday).
If you don’t want to make soup, you could use your ham bone to make a ham stock: Follow the directions in Steps 2 & 3, but reduce the amount of water so there’s just enough to cover the ham bone. Simmer for at least 2 hours, until tasty. Cool, put in freezer containers, and freeze until you’re ready to make soup (or do something else with the stock).
Moving Right Along
This will be my last hearty soup recipe until autumn, but I’m not done with beans, which are a year-round staple (at least chez Kitchen Riffs). In hot weather, there’s nothing more refreshing than White Bean and Tuna Salad, for example.
So expect to see a few more bean dishes in the months ahead. I’ll be posting about ways to prepare Mexican/Tex-Mex Beans, and how to turn hum-drum canned baked beans into a dish that rivals any traditional long-cooked recipe. That last one is perfect for picnics and barbecues — which I’m looking forward to as warmer weather approaches.
You may also enjoy reading about:
White Bean and Tuna Salad
Split Pea Soup with Greens
Home Made Croutons
Split Pea Soup with Bacon
Easy Lentil Soup
Black-Eyed Pea and Collard Green Soup
Curried Cauliflower Soup
Sweet Potato Soup with Chiles and Corn
Tuscan Bean and Pasta Soup