This hearty (and historic) soup will warm you up
Cold, gloomy weather? You know what that means. Soup!
With a new Congress in session – and the US Senate preparing to hold a historic trial – what could be more timely than Senate Bean Soup?
Its flavor will earn your family’s vote of confidence. By unanimous consent.
Recipe: Senate Bean Soup
Traditionally, this soup is made with navy beans and meaty ham hock or shank. We’ve changed things up a bit by using leftover ham, along with ham base (concentrated soup stock).
This recipe calls for using dried beans. Should you soak them before cooking? Soaking cuts about an hour off their cooking time. Because navy beans take a while to cook, we usually soak them overnight (you can also quick soak; see Notes).
Total prep time for this dish is about 15 minutes. Cooking time adds about 3 hours, largely unattended.
This recipe yields about 8 servings. Leftovers keep for a few days if refrigerated in an airtight container (or you can freeze them for up to 3 months).
- 1 pound dried navy beans, sorted to remove grit, then soaked overnight according to package directions (see Notes for “quick soak” instructions; may substitute any white bean)
- ~8 cups ham or chicken stock (we make this from soup/stock base; see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon oil or butter (butter is traditional)
- 1 large onion, cut into dice of about ½ inch
- 2 ribs celery, peeled and cut into thin slices
- salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon kosher salt for us; see Notes)
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced finely or minced (optional)
- ~12 ounces ham, cut into bite-size pieces (or to taste)
- a handful of parsley, washed, dried, stemmed, and finely minced
- The evening before you want to make this soup, start soaking the beans according to package directions (see Notes). Or you can quick soak the beans in about an hour (see Notes).
- When you’re ready to cook: Drain and rinse the beans, then add them to a large cooking pot (one that holds at least 6 quarts). Add the stock, then bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 1½ hours (see Notes if not using navy beans).
- After the bean mixture has simmered for the required time: Place a large frying pan on medium stovetop heat. When it’s hot, add the oil or butter. When the oil is hot or the butter is melted (15 to 30 seconds), add the onion and celery. Salt to taste, then sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the ham, then cook for a minute or two. Scrape the contents of the frying pan into the soup pot.
- Continue to simmer the soup until the beans are soft and tender (navy beans will probably take about 3 hours total to cook; Great Northerns maybe 2 hours total). If you want a thicker soup, mash some of the beans with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon (you can also whiz them with an immersion blender).
- Add the parsley and stir to combine. Taste the soup, adjusting the salt if necessary.
- Dish up and serve. We often add an extra sprinkling of parsley as garnish.
- Want to use a ham shank or hock instead of leftover ham and ham stock? Just rinse off the ham shank (use one that weighs about 1 pound), add it to the soup pot with the beans, and simmer. About half an hour before serving the soup, remove the shank from the cooking pot. When it’s cooled enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone. Cut the meat into bite-size pieces, then return them to the pot.
- For this recipe, we generally use leftover diced ham, plus ham stock (or sometimes chicken stock). To make the ham stock, we use ham base – which is concentrated soup stock.
- There are pros and cons to our method. A major pro is that, because we add the ham later in the cooking process (Step 3), its flavor is a bit brighter and fresher. The con? The soup loses a bit of the body and character that you get when you make stock from scratch using a ham bone (mostly because ham base lacks the natural gelatin that the bone provides). But the difference is small enough that we’re happy using stock base.
- Adding a small amount of acid (a teaspoon or so of vinegar or lemon juice) will help brighten the flavor of the soup – and make up for the slight loss of character you’ll get by using stock base. Stir the acid component in right before serving, when you adjust the seasoning.
- You can probably find ham base in your grocery store. If not, it’s available online. The two brands we prefer are Minor’s and Better than Bouillon. Our usual reminder here: We’re noncommercial and don’t get compensated when we mention brands. We suggest what we use and like (and purchase with our own money).
- Be aware that commercial soup base can be quite salty. So adjust the seasoning in this soup accordingly.
- Speaking of salt: We use kosher salt for cooking. It’s less salty by volume than regular table salt (the crystals are larger and more irregular, so they pack a measure less tightly). If using table salt, start with about half the amount we suggest. But always season to your taste, not ours.
- Once you open a container of soup base, you’ll need to store it in the refrigerator. But it will keep for months (the expiration dates on the containers tend to be conservative, in our experience).
- Navy beans are traditional in this dish, and that’s what we often use. But Great Northern beans cook faster (and we think they have better texture). You can also use cannellini beans or any other variety of white bean.
- Don’t have time to soak the beans overnight? You can do a “quick soak” (there will probably be instructions for this on the package): Bring the beans to a boil in a pot of water, simmer them for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and cover the cooking pot. After an hour, drain and rinse the beans, then proceed with the recipe.
- If you don’t soak the beans, you’ll probably need to cook them for an additional hour or two.
- Senate Bean Soup is a fairly austere recipe – it’s mostly just beans and ham (with a bit of onion and so forth). You can amp up the flavor and texture by adding potatoes to the mix. If going that route, cut the potatoes into dice of about ½ inch (no need to peel), and add them in Step 3. Diced carrots are also a nice addition.
- BTW, some versions of Senate Bean Soup add mashed potatoes to the mix. We haven’t tried that, but it sounds like an interesting idea.
- We sometimes add red pepper flakes to this soup for extra zest (we add them in Step 3). Not traditional, but good.
- We also sometimes season this soup with thyme or another herb of choice. Again, not traditional, but tasty.
- Why is this recipe called Senate Bean Soup? Because a version of this soup has been served daily in the U.S. Senate dining room since the early 20th century. So when you make this soup, you’ll be cooking a bit of history.
“I call this kitchen to order,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Be it resolved: This Senate Bean Soup really hits the spot.”
“I’ll vote for that,” I said. “And it doesn’t take an act of Congress to recognize that winter is soup weather.”
“There’s bipartisan agreement,” said Mrs K R. “Beans in every pot!”
No one will filibuster that.
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