Soup beans is an old Appalachian staple, nourishing, healthy and delicious. The photo is from “Southern Living No Taste Like Home,” by Kelly Alexander.
Think “Southern food” and what comes to mind? Barbecue, cornbread, banana pudding, pimento cheese, fried chicken, country ham, biscuits, gumbo, shrimp, grits ... shrimp and grits. The region’s contributions to good eating are legendary.
But there is a dish from the South that flies under much of the country’s culinary radar. It’s authentic, delicious and healthy — and it’s virtually unknown north of the Mason-Dixon line: soup beans.
Bean soup, you say? Nope. Soup beans — essentially a pot of soupy beans cooked with a ham hock or fatback and water. Soup beans is a regional specialty of the southern foothills of the Appalachians.
Charles Frazier, author of the Civil War novel “Cold Mountain” and a native of Asheville, N.C., is crazy for soup beans. He has spent decades “chasing the flavor” of the soup beans of his childhood. Fortunately for us, he shared his thoughts on soup beans and his method of making them with Southern Living magazine, and the editors included his method in a new book, “No Taste Like Home,” by Kelly Alexander.
In hard times, people in Appalachia kept 50-pound bags of dried shelling beans at the ready, and a pot of soup beans was almost always simmering on the wood stove. Pinto beans were traditional, but navy beans are an acceptable variation. (Frazier throws in a handful of yellow split peas as well.)
Ham hocks, ham, bacon or salt pork can all work as the flavoring. Frazier recommends no more than ½ pound of pork to 1 pound of beans; “otherwise the flavor of the vegetables becomes overwhelmed by hog.”
Soup beans is traditionally served either on a bed of crumbled cornbread, or the cornbread is crumbled into the bowl by the person eating the dish — like adding crackers to chili. Toppings include sweet-hot pepper jelly and chopped raw onion; Frazier likes to use a good quality olive oil and ground black pepper. Cooked greens, like collards, are often served on the side.
In “No Taste Like Home,” the photos of the Appalachian foothills bursting with fall colors mirror autumnal scenes in northern New England and the northern Midwest. With the cold coming on, it might be wise for those of us up north to learn from our neighbors down south and get cozy with a pot of soup beans.
Yield: 8 cups
8 ounces cured pork (ham, kielbasa or thick-cut bacon) or 1½ pounds ham hocks
1 large onion
4 stalks celery
Olive oil, as needed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound dried navy beans, rinsed and picked over
¼ cup yellow split peas, rinsed and picked over
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth plus 4 cups water OR 8 cups water
1 tablespoon dried savory
1 bay leaf
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped onion, sweet-hot pepper relish and wedges of cornbread
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil and coarsely ground black pepper
If using ham, kielbasa or bacon, dice into pieces no bigger than the beans. If using ham hock, set aside.
Set a skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the ham/kielbasa/bacon for 3 minutes. Remove the meat from the skillet, but keep the drippings in it.
Peel and trim the vegetables as needed and cut into ½-inch dice.
Set the skillet with the drippings over low heat. (If using a ham hock, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil instead.) Cook the vegetables for about 5 minutes. Enhance with a little olive oil if desired, or if you don’t have enough drippings. When vegetables are fragrant and soft but not browned, add the garlic. Cook 2 more minutes, stirring frequently.
Combine the navy beans, split peas, pork orham hocks and the cooked vegetables in a large Dutch oven. Cover with liquid; you want 8 cups total. (If you are using ham hocks, they may stick up above the liquid.) Add the savory, bay leaf and about ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours. Uncover and cook 1½ hours more, or until the split peas are entirely dissolved and the navy beans are still whole but completely soft.
During this time, stir occasionally and add liquid if needed to keep the beans submerged. Cooking time will vary depending on the size and freshness of the beans and the altitude at which you are cooking. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, with desired accompaniments.
(Recipe slightly adapted from “Southern Living No Taste Like Home” by Kelly Alexander; Oxmoor House, 2013)
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