For Anyone with a Ham Bone and a Good Attitude
"Say it with Beans"
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If you have a leftover ham bone, congratulations, because I’m assuming you threw a ham party, or at the very least, attended one. The ham bone could be a knob-shaped half a ham bone or a whole, awkward L-shaped bone, too unwieldy to properly put in any pot you own for broth. It could be cleaned of any sliceable meat or still craggly with bits of perfectly good sandwich/snacking ham attached. No matter the condition of your ham bone, you can make something with it.
You could simmer the ham bone in a large pot of water with nothing else and it would still be pretty good- salty, slightly smoky, gentle ham flavor (“a smack of ham”). But as always with soup or stock (especially soup or stock made from “leftovers,” or “discard”), it’s nice to use other things that are either leftover or potentially discard-able. A half an onion, old fennel, some roasted carrots you no longer want to reheat and eat again. If you did, in fact, host a ham party and that ham party was accompanied by the suggested “sliced, raw vegetables for snacking,” then maybe you have extra of those— they can go into the pot with the ham bone (I bought way too much celery for my last ham party, once again overestimating the enthusiasm others have for this perfect vegetable). Simmer this until it tastes very good— either use it immediately or freeze it for future soups.
But why not make something better. Something, say, with beans.
Here’s what I did (please use this as inspiration as opposed to a real recipe, as every pot will be different, but if you let this guide you, every pot will be great):
STEP ONE, BROTHY BEANS WITH HAM
In addition to the ham itself, whatever goes into this pot will inform the flavor of other things you decide to make with these beans, if you get that far. My ham (and maybe yours, too) was rubbed with fennel seed and crushed red pepper, so it made sense to me that those flavors make an appearance in my pot, since they’d probably end up in there anyway.
Start with the largest pot you own. It might not be large enough to fit your enormous ham bone, but trust that as your ham bone simmers in the pot with whatever liquid you add, the joint of the bone will soften, allowing you to bend the ham bone in two, fitting the entire thing into your pot.
I served thinly sliced fennel bulb with my Lipton’s Secret Recipe at my party, so I ended up with an abundance of fennel stalks and fronds (I always save the stalks and fronds, either in the fridge for slicing thinly and adding to salads, or freezing in ziploc bags for later stock/broth days). I thinly sliced about 6 stalks with the fronds and added to the pot with a generous amount of olive oil along with: 1 old bunch of scallions that I should have probably tossed (thinly sliced), 1 large yellow onion (finely chopped), 6 cloves garlic (smashed), 4 stalks celery (finely chopped), 2 whole chile de arbol (crumbled) and 2 fresh bay leaves (more on bay leaves next week). I seasoned the pot with salt and pepper and sauteed over medium–high heat until everything started to become tender and sweaty, 10–15 minutes.
Then, I added a pound of Rancho Gordo beans (unsoaked), because even though every time I cook the whole pound and think “why do I always make so many beans at once?” I still felt like I’d rather have too many cooked beans ready to eat than a package of opened beans I probably won’t ever cook. I’m not saying this is logical, I’m saying this is how I am. The beans I used the Alubia Blanca Bean, one of my favorite beans for all purposes, similar to a Navy Bean. Creamy without falling apart, small but not too small, just the right amount of starchiness. You could use any bean, probably. I mean that.
I added the ham bone, and filled the pot with as much water as it could handle. I brought this to a simmer and seasoned again with some more salt. I left this alone and simmered it for 2 1/2-ish hours. The beans were cooked before that, but I knew they would become creamier and thicken the liquid better if I kept going, and so you know what, I wanted to keep going.
And, like I promised, about halfway through the cooking, the ham bone softened at the joint and I was able to submerge the entire thing in the pot. The benefit of this is that you no longer have a ridiculous ham bone sticking out of your pot, but also the ham continues to braise and become tender (“fall-off-the-bone tender”) as well as flavor the broth your beans are cooking in.
These beans and this broth would be very good if you stopped here (your basic brothy beans at work), but in case you’d like to make it a more formal soup, head to…
STEP TWO, BEAN STEW WITH FENNEL AND PARMESAN
Okay so that was a trick, because that WAS the soup, but in a more informal “brothy bean” preparation. To further make this something for lunch or dinner, you’ll want to pick the meat from the ham bone. Even if you don’t think there’s any ham to pick, you’re wrong. It’s there! Pick it and add it to the beans– it’ll look like bright pink slivers of pulled pork. This soup will now remind you of split pea soup in the best way (if you’d rather make split pea soup, the recipe is here).
Thinly slice some more fennel stalks/fronds, or thinly slice a bulb if you found one, and put it in a small bowl with a few thinly sliced scallions or a half of a finely chopped shallot, maybe some lemon zest or a squeeze of lemon juice, a handful of parsley or celery leaves and season with salt and pepper. Toss until you’ve got a nice tangy, crunchy, little salad.
Ladle some of your brothy beans, tender bits of ham and fennel into your best bowl and top with this raw, crunchy fennel mixture and another glug of olive oil. If you looked at the photo and thought “dill, how classic of her,” well, you’re wrong, it was fennel fronds! But dill would also be good. Shave a ton of parmesan or pecorino over these beans and another crack of black pepper or crushed chili flake.
These beans are a wonderful soup/stew, whatever. Serve with a thick piece of toast to soak up the juices, or maybe a side of sausage that you found in the freezer next to a peppery salad (that’s what I did).
But if you still have too many beans, then you really should make….
STEP THREE, CHEESY BAKED BEANS WITH CELERY AND GARLICKY BREAD CRUMBS
Remember how I was like “why can’t I make fewer beans?” well, this is why. And of the three things I made with the ham bone (which really turned into beans), this is my favorite. You probably don’t have to do steps 1 or 2 to get here, but that’s how I got here. TLDR; These beans taste like stuffing, make them.
Take your leftover brothy beans or your soup or stew* with all those wonderful bits of ham and place in a shallow baking dish (this is the one I have, it’s by Dansk and it’s perfect for this type of thing and also for creamed greens, or any sort of casserole situation).
Stir in 2–3 stalks thinly sliced or finely chopped celery and another few thinly sliced scallions or one small leek (all go in raw). Stir to mix everything well and season if needed with salt and pepper. Add a bit of broth if they are looking “tight” or too thick, just enough to give them a little something to swim in. Top with lots (at least a cup) of grated parmesan, pecorino, or white cheddar cheese. Gruyere would also be good.
In a small bowl, combine 2 cups bread that you’ve torn with your hands into very small croutons (I used basic sliced sourdough from the store—for these beans, I find the tiny croutons torn by hand even from mediocre bread to be better than panko/coarse breadcrumbs, but those work, too) and give them enough olive oil to soak, about 3–4 tablespoons. Add in two finely chopped or grated garlic cloves and season with salt and pepper. Scatter your bread over the beans and bake at 425° for 30–40 minutes, until the sides are bubbling and the bread is browned. Top with some remnants of fennel fronds, celery leaves, parsley, or leave it alone, perfect as-is.
Serve alongside a perfect roast chicken or simply as “the star itself,” next to a salad of crunchy lettuces dressed in lemon and anchovy.