Soup Swap, Hunter’s Widow Edition
I went to another gathering of the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers last weekend. Mother’s Kitchen had a half-empty house because her menfolk were off hunting, so she invited us over for a third annual MLFB soup swap, which is just like a cookie swap: everyone brings a pot of soup and some containers and takes a little bit of each kind home. Perfect timing—my freezer is now full of diverse, delicious meals ready to be reheated on a moment’s notice, which will definitely come in handy on busy, chilly nights this Fall when there’s too much going on to cook. Including a flavorful, creamy Roasted Tomato Soup from Fruitcake or Nuts and nourishing, zesty White Chicken Chili from Mother’s Kitchen.
My contribution was a smoky black bean soup, inspired by the gigantic ham hocks I got from Ernst Farms. I bought two of them sight-unseen through Lunasa, a bimonthly Market Day-style order & pickup system for Ann Arbor-area farms, expecting them to be roughly the size of my fist like the ones I typically see at the grocery store. Instead, they’re the size of my head. And then, remembering that TeacherPatti doesn’t eat pork, I picked up some smoked turkey necks to make a pig-free version (and she didn’t even show up! The nerve!). The pork and turkey versions turned out remarkably similar. I imagine any smoked meat product would work. You could probably even do a passable vegan version with pimenton and/or liquid smoke.
Bean Basics I: Taming the Magical Fruit
Some people claim that the foam that rises to the top of a pot of simmering beans is connected to the gas many people get after eating them, and that skimming it off will prevent or reduce that effect. Not true. The reason beans make people fart is because of the indigestible carbohydrates—mostly oligosaccharides—that pass through most of the human GI system intact and then get devoured by bacteria in our lower intestine, causing a sudden spike in gas production. The foam in the pot, on the other hand, is produced by water-soluble proteins that trap air bubbles as they rise to the surface of the water. You can skim it if it bothers you, but it won’t affect how flatulent the soup is, or how it tastes or looks.
Hock shoved mostly beneath the surface, this batch got one turkey neck too.
So how do you make beans less flatulent? There are basically two options: 1) soak them overnight and throw out the soaking liquid (along with lots of nutrients and flavor) or 2) cook them a long time, which breaks the oligosaccharides down into easier-to-digest sugars and starches. Various folk traditions also claim that adding a slice of ginger, a bay leaf, a piece of kombu seaweed, epazote, cumin, and/or fennel seeds to a pot of beans helps reduce gassiness too. I’ve also seen a few recipes that claim adding baking soda helps, but according to Harold McGee, all that does is decrease the cooking time, which works against flatulence-reduction (McGee 2004  : 486-9). Since it’s basic, it can also make the soup taste alkalai or soapy.
Bean Basics II: Keeping It Together
If you’re okay with your beans basically dissolving into mush, a long cooking time is no problem. But if you like your beans to retain a little structural integrity, you should add a little acid, sugar, and/or calcium. Again, McGee:
Acids make the cell-wall hemicelluloses more stable and less dissolvable; sugar helps reinforce cell-wall structure and slows the swelling of the starch granules; and calcium cross-links and reinforces cell-wall pectins. So such ingredients as molasses—somewhat acid and rich in both sugar and and calcium—and acidic tomatoes can preserve bean structure during long cooking or reheating, as for example in baked beans (ibid., 488).
What you definitely shouldn’t add, at least before the beans are done cooking, is salt. Salt increases the cooking speed by reducing how much the starch in the beans swells as it cooks, which not only works against the slow-cooking flatulence-reduction strategy, it can also make the beans mealy instead of creamy. For most bean dishes, water, alcohol, or unsalted homemade stock make better cooking liquids than canned broth or bouillon. If you really want to use bouillon in a bean recipe, stir it in at the end.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Like most soups, this is less a recipe anyone should follow exactly than a set of general guidelines you can adapt based on what you have on hand. In general, for every pound of dried beans, you’ll probably want about one large onion, a half dozen cloves of garlic, a can or two of tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh), a carrot or two, a bunch of hearty greens, a pound of smoked meat, and about 5 cups of cooking liquid.
I might have added celery, too, if I’d had any.
As McGee notes, molasses is good for flavor and bean texture—at least a tablespoon per pound of beans. I’ll almost always throw in a few bay leaves. I don’t even know what kind of flavor they add, I just reflexively add them to long-simmering soups. Additionally, this time, I added oregano, allspice, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Plus a splash of dry sherry and a squish of lemon. Fresh cilantro at the very end, salt and pepper to taste.
I bet orange juice, ginger, and allspice would be a pretty tasty combination. Sweet potatoes or winter squash would work instead of (or in addition to) the carrots. A beer in place of some of the broth would have been good in place of the sherry. Fresh or frozen corn and/or bell peppers might be nice if you wanted more veggies. Some hot peppers if you like things really spicy. Leave out the meat if that’s not your thing (in which case, a little MSG or nutritional yeast and additional oil would make up for some of the umami flavor you get from the bones & fat & cartilage).
Serve it with sour cream or shredded/crumbled cheese, green onions, more cilantro or parsley, lemon or lime wedges, corn bread, tortilla chips, a hunk of crusty sourdough, or just by itself.
Makes 6-8 servings, doubles or triples well
- 2-3 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil or rendered bacon fat
- 1 large onion
- 4-6 cloves garlic
- 3-4 carrots
- 1 15-oz can diced tomatoes or 2-3 large raw tomatoes, diced
- about one bunch of hearty cooking greens or 1/2 lb frozen spinach
- 1 lb black beans, soaked for at least 6 hours
- 5 cups of the soaking water, beer, wine, and/or low-salt stock
- 1-2 lbs smoked bones with some meat on them—ham hocks, turkey neck, etc. OR 1 Tablespoon pimenton or liquid smoke to taste
- 2 Tablespoons molasses
- a hearty glug of dry sherry (2-3 Tablespoons?)
- juice of one lemon (or lime, or a little vinegar, or a lot of orange juice)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- a handful of chopped cilantro, chopped
- salt, pepper, and more lemon juice or vinegar to taste
- optional garnishes: cheese, sour cream, chives, cilantro, hot sauce, lemon or lime wedges
1. Heat the oil or bacon fat in a large pot while you dice the onion, mince the garlic, and slice the carrots, adding each one to the pot as you finish cutting.
2. Cook until the onions begin to take on some color, and then add everything except the cilantro, salt, pepper, and garnishes.
3. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat until the soup is just simmering and cook for 2-3 hours, or until the beans are cooked through and the meat is falling off the bones.
4. Remove the bones from the pot and let them cool for about 30 minutes (let the soup keep simmering). Remove the meat and chop it into bite-sized pieces or shred it between your fingers. Discard the skin and bone.
5. Add the cilantro, salt, pepper, and more lemon juice to taste.