Monday, December 31, 2012

Wintertime Bean Soup

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” 
― Edith Sitwell

It is the end of the year. The days are short, the evenings dark and long.

In our part of the world, the sun rises in the southeast, skims the rooftops of the houses to our south, and sets behind the Hills in the southwest. 

The mid-afternoon light throws long shadows as we explore the shore of Sylvan Lake - the summer playground deserted this time of year.

By 5:00, Orion starts his journey across the southern sky and the shades are drawn against the cold night outside.

This is the time for soup and homemade bread - food that warms the belly and the spirit.

Today's soup is bean soup. Not a fancy dish, but nothing tastes better on a cold winter night.

I have no recipe for this soup - it would be like asking for a recipe for scrambled eggs! It's been a wintertime staple in my family since long before I was born.

The main ingredient is beans. 

I always use Navy Beans, or small white beans, but you can use your favorite.

Now don't turn up your nose at the lowly bean! Just check out this nutritional powerhouse:

Beans are a good source of
1) Protein
2) Complex carbohydrates
3) Fiber - both soluble and insoluble
4) Calcium
5) Potassium
6) Folate (a B vitamin)

...and they come in all colors and shapes...

It's easy to prepare the beans for cooking. Start the night before by soaking two cups of beans in about a gallon of water mixed with two tablespoons vinegar. If you have hard water (water with a lot of minerals in it), use filtered or distilled water for soaking and cooking your beans.

Why the vinegar? It helps reduce that gassy side effect beans can have.

The next morning, drain and rinse the beans thoroughly. Now they're ready to use.

Beans take a long time to cook and they absorb a lot of water, so give yourself plenty of time. I always use my slow cooker, but you can also cook them on top of the stove over low heat (be sure to stir them occasionally). Either way, check the beans every couple hours to make sure they haven't cooked dry.

I use broth instead of water to cook my bean soup - it adds flavor as well as nutrition. Today I'm using ham broth and chicken broth (about six cups for two cups of beans), but you can also use vegetable broth, leftover water from boiling potatoes, or whatever you might have on hand.

Always add onions to your soup, again for flavor and nutrition, but from there on the soup is very versatile.

We have leftover ham from Christmas in the refrigerator, so I diced up about a cup of that and added it in. You can also add carrots or potatoes (or both). Some people add in mashed potatoes.

Let the soup cook for a good 10 to 12 hours in the slow cooker - maybe four to six hours on the stove.

Taste your soup before adding salt and pepper - if you've used ham or ham broth, you'll probably have enough salt already.

If you add salt, wait until the very end of cooking to put it in. (Salt keeps the fiber in the beans from breaking down while cooking.) 

Serve your soup with fruit or veggies, and lots of crackers.

My husband likes these little gems - he calls them "fabulous crackers" - but I like regular saltines.

I also make cornbread to have with the soup...

...and of course, cornbread needs honey.

Remember I said this soup has been a family staple for years? While doing some research for my next book, I found out that for the 18th century Amish in Pennsylvania (my grandparents six and seven generations ago...), bean soup was a Sunday tradition.

The Amish in those days didn't drive buggies, or wagons, or carriages to church. They walked.

It could be a six mile walk to the house where the Sabbath Meeting was being held, and before the families would start the long walk home in the afternoon, they were given a meal - something simple, warm, filling and cheap. Bean soup.

I can just imagine a log home filled to the brim with Amish families, some of them still grieving loved ones they had lost on the long journey across the Atlantic in ships called the "Charming Nancy" and "Love and Unity". Old men with gray beards, women in their bonnets and capes, children with cheeks rosy from the cold outside and the heat inside the house...and all day long smelling the fragrance from the big kettle of bean soup simmering on the hearth.

And you thought you had a hard time concentrating on the sermon!


  1. A recipe and a history lesson! Thanks, Jan.

    I just made some soup tonight. Well it was supposed to be soup but ended up more like carrot and parsnip stew, but it was delicious!

    1. I've learned to love parsnips just in the last year - I never knew they were so sweet when they were cooked! Now I add them into pot roast, vegetable soup, beef stew...

  2. We had the easy version (canned beans) of bean soup yesterday because it's what dd wanted. I like adding celery (great nutrition and flavor) to our soup.

    I've never heard of vinegar, only baking soda.

    1. Canned beans do make the soup easier. Last year I canned my own beans - just to try - and it was sooo easy! You really need a pressure canner to do it, though.

  3. Interesting about the vinegar! Hubby always says that people add the salt at the wrong time and that toughens the skins, and makes them give you tummy trouble.

    Either way, I don't make the beans in this house. That would be like my husband decided to write a romance novel. He does it best.

    I love white bean soup with ham. YUM. And great story about the sermon and the soup! Yikes! I'd be ravenous!

    1. I only use the vinegar when I'm soaking the beans, and then rinse them before I start cooking them.

      And my hubby likes his beans broken down into mush. It took me several years to figure out that it was the salt (either added by me too soon) or the hard water that made the beans stay firm while they cooked.

      But since I've started adding vinegar to the soaking water and leaving the salt until just before serving, we haven't had the "tummy trouble" usually associated with beans :)

  4. Thanks for the recipe, Jan! We already used up our Christmas hambone, but I will keep this tucked away for future reference. Most of the Christmas ham is gone too. My family buys an Amish ham every year and it never lasts very long. Great stuff!

    1. Hi Piper!

      We love ham for Christmas, too. I still have the hambone left, and I'll use it to make ham stock after we've used up all the meat.

      You're right - it never lasts long.

      And where do you get your Amish ham? Do you live near an Amish community?

  5. I love the recipe and the history lesson too. After all the snowfall we've had this past week, I'm marveling at the fortitude of those first generation Amish actually walking six miles to church in the middle of winter! Without snowplows! Oy.

    I go into soup mode when winter comes. Always homemade. Lentil soup, Minestrone. Corn chowder (thanks Yankeebelle cafe!) but I've never made a bean soup from scratch. I'm going to give it a go...hmmm....would make a good New Year Day soup, wouldn't it?

    When do you add the veggies? And no spices or seasonings other than salt? I think I'd have to add something since I wouldn't have the ham.

    1. I add the veggies sometime in the first half of the cooking - usually right at the beginning, but sometimes I've got other things pressing and don't get to peeling the carrots or whatever right away.

      And experiment with the seasonings! I think some dry mustard would be good. I know my Dad always adds a bay leaf. Christine says she adds celery - that would be scrumptious.

      But most of the flavor I add is in the broth I use to cook the beans in, so the broth I use determines how much other seasoning to put in. The ham stock I make is pretty flavorful, so I don't need to add very much other than that.

  6. This sounds so good, Jan!! I'm going to have to head to the pantry and see if I have a bag of beans on hand.

    Something I often do is freeze the ham bone after a holiday. It's usually a Honey Baked Ham and is delicious in soup! But we didn't have ham this year. Will have to use boxed broth.

    1. You could always have ham for New Year's!

  7. Your bean recipe sounds so good! I wish i had the ingredients to make it.

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    Have a wonderful New Year!