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. 

Blue Kitchen
Bring a taste of home to this election season with Senate bean soup. The classic American recipe has been done many ways, but this version keeps it simple and flavorful.

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.

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
Serves 4

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
salt (maybe)

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.)

Transfer the ham hock to a shallow bowl and let it cool slightly. Transfer a ladleful of the beans to a small bowl, along with a little of the liquid. Using a hand masher or a fork, mash the beans thoroughly and return to the pot. Do this with two more ladlesful of beans. This will thicken the liquid a bit. I did this instead of adding mashed potatoes, not wanting to introduce their starchy flavor to the mix. Stir in the vegetable mix and season generously with pepper. Do not add salt at this time.

When the ham hock is cooled enough to handle, remove the skin, fat and bones and chop the meat into small pieces. Again, remember the scale of the navy beans. Return the meat to the pot and simmer uncovered for another 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until beans are completely tender and the liquid has reduced somewhat, creating a slightly thick broth.

Taste carefully and add salt only if needed. The ham hock will add plenty of salt, so you may not need any. I didn’t. Discard the bay leaves. Ladle soup into  bowls, giving the pot a good stir with the ladle each time – the beans, vegetables and meat tend to settle to the bottom, and this will give each serving a good, hearty mix of everything. Serve with a crusty bread, rolls or cornbread.

Kitchen Notes

Soaking beans, slow and fast. Whichever method you choose, pick through the beans first to remove any pebbles and shriveled looking beans and then give them a quick rinse.

Slow: Soaking beans overnight is simplicity itself. Just place them 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: Place picked over and rinsed beans in a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Cover with cold tap water by at least 3 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.

Ham hocks. Strictly smoked, please. The smokiness adds immeasurably to the flavor of the soup. Ham hocks are one of those nose-to-tail ingredients that have been around since long before that term was invented. You’ll find them in most supermarkets. We got beautiful smoked ham hocks from our favorite local (and locavore) butcher shop, The Butcher & Larder. I bought two (I’ve wrapped and frozen one for further adventures later this year). When I unwrapped the butcher paper package in our kitchen, the whole apartment filled with the hocks’ smoky aroma. I was immediately transported back to a relative’s kitchen somewhere in the country long ago.

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