Recipe for debate night: Senate bean soup
This classic American recipe has some history behind it. Made with beans, ham hocks, carrots, celery and onion, this soup makes a hearty dinner and may remind you of simpler times.
As with most classic recipes, there are countless versions out there. Even the official United States Senate website has two takes on it, to match the two most popular stories of which senator requested the bean soup be added to the dining room’s menu.Skip to next paragraph
Terry Boyd is the author of Blue Kitchen, a Chicago-based food blog for home cooks. His simple, eclectic cooking focuses on fresh ingredients, big flavors and a cheerful willingness to borrow ideas and techniques from all over the world. A frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, his recipes have also appeared on the Bon Appétit and Saveur websites.
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The recipe attributed to Sen. Fred Dubois of Idaho contains mashed potatoes (I know you’re as surprised as I am). Minnesota Sen. Knute Nelson’s recipe does not. Whoever started the tradition, bean soup has been served daily in the Senate Dining Room since about 1903.
Senate bean soup is not a complex soup. It is the homey, homely, sturdy soup of our childhood, cooked for hours on a wintry day, steaming kitchen windows and filling the house with the smoky fragrance of ham hocks. "Frommer’s" goes so far as to say, “The Senate Bean Soup may be famous, but it’s tasteless goo.” I disagree. This is elemental comfort food that speaks to something written deep in our genetic code.
The first recipe on the Senate site is among the most stripped down, using only beans, ham hocks, butter, an onion, salt, pepper and water. Some include mashed potatoes (and some even substitute instant mashed potato flakes). Others get overly busy, I think, with multiple herbs and spices and even wine.
I stayed closer to tradition, adding only some aromatics – carrots, celery and garlic – and bay leaves. I didn’t want to do a modern homage to the soup. I wanted to keep it steadfastly old school.
It starts with the beans. Navy beans, to be exact. You can substitute great northern beans, but the Senate kitchen uses navy beans. More often than not, we use canned beans at Blue Kitchen. They’re quick and convenient and, for most recipes, work just fine. This recipe requires dried beans. The long cooking time they demand lets the ham hock’s smoky flavor permeate everything. Dried beans also generally require soaking to soften them up before cooking. You can soak the beans overnight, the time honored approach that, unfortunately for me, requires planning ahead. I used a quick soaking method I’ll describe in the Kitchen Notes that had the beans ready to cook in little more than an hour.
Even though the cooking time is long – 2-1/2 to 3 hours, give or take – it’s something that can go on mostly unattended. On a recent Saturday, I started soaking the beans in the afternoon. By early evening, we were sitting down to a hearty supper.
Senate Bean Soup
1 pound dried navy beans, soaked (see Kitchen Notes)
1 smoked ham hock, about 3/4 pound (see Kitchen Notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
freshly ground black pepper
Combine beans, ham hock, garlic, 8 cups of water and bay leaves in a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 1-1/2 hours.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add onion, carrots and celery and toss to coat with butter, until just softening, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. (A note on chopping and dicing these vegetables: Navy beans are small. Cut the vegetables to match that scale – no big carrot coins or chunks of celery.)