Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup was one of my favorites growing up. Quivering beige sludge with an occasional bean or mysterious fat cube, it was condensed. You’d add a can full of water and slosh it around in a pot on the stove, then it would become soup. It would cook up hot and salty, just how I liked it, and perfect with saltine crackers.
Even after leaving home, it was comfort food. I remember with fascination and trepidation a particular old sandwich shop in Ann Arbor that would sell a bowl of it, sans attribution, for college student prices. Maybe a buck fifty a bowl? Perfect for a freezing day walking around without sense in Michigan. (Drake’s closed a few years after my last visit in the late 80s, but there’s a wonderful photo set from that era here.)
I wouldn’t say no if someone put a can in front of me now, but I’d probably seize up over the salt content. Actually, maybe not, since even Campbell’s realized it was over the top and reformulated the stuff into a “heart healthy” version (whatever that means) a number of years ago.
There are many ways to make your own bean-smoky-meat soup that are way more healthy than anything processed in a can, but if you’re lucky, they’ll still bring on that rush of nostalgia when you smell them in the pot.
I had a surplus of root vegetables from the CSA thanks to this frosty month, and thought I’d experiment with a bean soup that was as much about the veg as it was the legume. This soup is more than its parts, so feel free to add more root vegetables than you think possible. It will look like too many roots, but you’ll cook half of them down into the broth. Don’t do anything ridiculous, like add beets, though. Stick with mild potatoey- or carroty-type roots.
Smoked ham or bacon or turkey is really not optional for this recipe, as it forms the broth. Start the night before you’d like to serve it. Flavor improves as it sits.
Improvised Smoky Bean and Root Vegetable Soup
- Several pounds of mixed root vegetables: rutabagas, turnips, potatoes, celery root, etc., chopped
- One large yellow onion, diced
- 3-4 stalks celery, diced
- a half dozen good-sized carrots and/or parsnips
- Several cups of country ham (or a couple of ham hocks/shanks if you have those instead)
- Greens: a bunch of kale, collards, green cabbage, head of parsley, escarole, etc.
- Fresh herbs if you have them (I used a bay leaf, a couple sprigs of sage, and some thyme)
- 2-3 cups of dried soup beans, which might be Hutterite soup beans, Vermont cranberry beans, Navy or Great Northern beans, etc.
- salt and pepper
Soak your beans overnight and prepare the stock. Dice the onion, celery, and carrots or parsnips into small pieces. Over medium heat in a medium-sized stock pot (5 gallons, perhaps), sauté ham (if using), chopped onion, celery and carrots/parsnips until they turn golden brown. Add enough water to fill the pot about halfway, and add half of the chopped root vegetables, herbs, and the ham hock/shank (if using).
Do not add the beans or the other half of the vegetables yet.
Simmer stock on a low heat for a couple of hours, then cool and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, bring stock up to a simmer, then add the beans and cook until they are soft. With a potato masher, mush some of them up to thicken the broth.
Now taste and salt the broth (salt needed will depend on the ham you’re using). If in doubt, err on the less salty side, since you can add more later. Add the greens and the rest of the vegetables, and simmer another half hour or so until tender.
Adjust seasonings before serving with a hunk of country bread.
Serves many hungry people and freezes well. Cats who appear to be innocently looking out the window from a far corner of the table so they won’t seem interested also enjoy it when your back is turned.