Southwestern antifreeze: lively, hearty Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks

This is being a strange winter. Last Friday, for instance, the high flirted with 60ºF. In Chicago. Saturday, it dropped all day to the 20s. By Sunday night, it was 15. And on top of everything else, it isn’t snowing. As Marion points out in a post about a 6-inch tall fop on her blog, 9591 Iris, there has been no measurable snow in Chicago for more than 300 days.

But strange or not, it’s still winter, and that had me thinking soup. This soup started with a remembered ham hock not getting any younger in the freezer. My first thought was black-eyed peas, but there was also a bag of dried black beans in the pantry with similar faded youth issues. So black bean soup it was.

The prolific Anonymous once said, “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.” Black bean soup must be successful indeed. Its origin has been credited to Mexico, Michigan, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central America, Europe… Lydia over at Soup Chick even makes a delicious soundingKorean-style black bean soup. Most versions I found when I started thinking about making it took their inspiration from the American Southwest. So did I.

This is a great soup to make a day ahead. It gets better when allowed to rest in the fridge and let the flavors blend. Speaking of flavors, the many potent ingredients—cumin, garlic, celery, bell pepper and even the smoked ham hock—each add their distinctive flavors without taking over the dish. And the jalapeño pepper, while only subtly affecting the taste, brings needed heat. With the volume of soup this recipe produces, the pepper doesn’t make it fiery—it just delivers a tingly kick, giving it another layer of interest.

Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks
Serves 4 or 5 as main course

1 pound dried black beans, soaked (see Kitchen Notes for fast and slow soaking methods)
1 smoked ham hock, 3/4 to 1 pound
8 cups water
2 bay leaves
canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large jalapeño pepper, finely chopped (see Kitchen Notes)
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, peeled and diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (see Kitchen Notes)
salt

sour cream (optional)
chopped cilantro for garnish

Place soaked beans and ham hock in large, heavy stock pot or Dutch oven. Add water and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1-1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan or skillet. Add onion, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, carrots and celery. Toss to coat with oil and sweat vegetables for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Clear a space in center of pan, drizzling in extra oil if needed, and add garlic and cumin. Cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and toss vegetables to combine. Set aside.

Using tongs, transfer ham hock to shallow bowl and set aside. Remove and discard bay leaves; add vegetable mixture and tomatoes to pot. Season generously with fresh ground black pepper, but don’t add any salt at this point. Transfer 4 cups of soup to food processor and carefully purée (do this in two batches, if necessary). Return to pot.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1/2 hour or more. Meanwhile, when ham hock has cooled enough to handle, remove the skin, fat and bones and chop the meat into small pieces. Return to pot. As the soup simmers, you may get a bit of foam on the top. If so, skim it off and discard. This happened late in the cooking process for me.

Add lime juice and adjust seasoning with salt, if needed—the ham hock will provide plenty of saltiness, so you probably won’t need much. Ladle soup into bowls, giving it a good stir with the ladle to make sure everyone gets plenty of beans, vegetables and meat. Top with a dollop of sour cream, if using, and garnish with cilantro. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Soaking beans. Here are two methods, the traditional slow soak and a convenient fast soak. Whichever method you choose, pick through the beans first to remove any pebbles and shriveled looking beans and give them a quick rinse.

  • Slow: Place beans in a large pot or bowl and cover with water by at least three inches. Soak them overnight, drain and rinse. They are now ready to cook.
  • Fast: I’m really liking this method these days—cuts way down on the need to plan ahead. Place picked over and rinsed beans in a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Cover with cold tap water by at least three inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 2 minutes. Turn off heat, cover pot and let beans soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse. They’re now ready to cook.

Spice it up with the jalapeño. When you chop the jalapeño, include at least some of the seeds and ribs. They’ll add just enough heat to this big pot of soup give it an interesting kick.

Buy plenty of limes. Unlike lemons, limes are notoriously stingy when it comes to producing juice. It could take three or four limes to get the needed two tablespoons of juice for this recipe. And yes, lime juice is necessary. We sampled the soup when it was fully cooked before adding the lime juice. Despite all the various big-flavored ingredients, it was surprisingly bland. The lime juice brought it to life.

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