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8 & $20: Ham and Bean Soup

This nourishing, spicy winter dish finds a perfect partner in an off-dry Riesling
Savory thick-cut ham and mixed beans are the base of this healthy soup, while cayenne pepper adds a warming kick.
Photo by: iStock
Savory thick-cut ham and mixed beans are the base of this healthy soup, while cayenne pepper adds a warming kick.

Samantha Falewée
Posted: February 13, 2018

Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.

Beans offer a lot of advantages for the health-conscious home cook: They are a very inexpensive way to feed a lot of people; they are low in fat; and they are high in protein (a half-cup of cooked beans is equivalent to 2 ounces of cooked meat), fiber, potassium and B vitamins. Plus, they are easy to prepare and pair with other foods.

With the addition of thick-cut pieces of savory ham, a mix of a dozen or so types of beans makes a strong base for a hearty soup, which you can tailor to whatever preferences you like. Chopped spinach and tomatoes push the health benefits even higher. For added flavor, I sometimes swap in chicken stock for the water, and I'll toss in a few bay leaves, which you can just pull out while you're eating. (You can also add herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage early in the cooking process; leave things like basil for the finishing touch.)

And, as a family quirk that I cannot shake, I use cayenne pepper. Lots of it. Many bean soup recipes call for chile powder, which is similar but not the same. Cayenne pepper is ground dried chilies; chile powder is a spice blend, which can include cayenne or other peppers. The result is a hot soup that will nourish your body, warm your belly and clear your sinuses.

For the beans, Hurst’s has been a staple purveyor of dry, packaged beans in the United States since the 1940s. Look for the plastic bags of their 15-bean soup mix—you'll see the old-timey packaging in yellow, red and royal blue—on the lower shelves at the supermarket. Or, if you prefer, substitute another favorite brand's mix or select from the bulk foods aisle, if your market has one.

In a 15-bean mix like Hurst's, you’ll find the usual suspects—lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans and so on—as well split peas and lentils. The idea for this recipe prompted a lively discussion in our office (we love a good food debate here) about how many different types of beans there are in the world and what exactly falls into the category of "bean." So, for our purposes, “bean” is a loosely applied word for the seeds or pods produced by legumes.

It’s standard practice to soak dried beans in a pot of salted water overnight. The water dissolves the starches in the beans and makes digesting them easier, while the salt helps break down the beans’ skins. You want to use a big pot for the soaking, as the beans will triple in volume by the next morning.

If the beans are taking a long time to soften, check the expiration date on the bag. Dried beans aren’t good after two years, and while a bag of pebble-hard dried beans may look like the kind of thing you’d want to stow in an apocalypse bunker, that’s really not the case. If that’s not the problem, consider whether your household receives mineral-rich, or “hard,” water, which can slow cooking.

The soup needs to cook about 2 hours and 30 minutes, which can be a long time for those of us getting home from work in the evening. But if you make it ahead, this meal will easily keep in the fridge for four or five days.

For the wine pairing, the cayenne heat presents a fun opportunity to match the soup with an off-dry white wine—in this case, a semi-dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York. With notes of lime and a hint of yellow apple on the nose, the wine was light-bodied but had a subtly lush, mouthcoating texture that provided a soothing counterpoint to the soup's kick.

As far as off-dry whites go, this Riesling was modest in its sweetness level; for all the spice I add to the soup, the wine could have been much sweeter and still held up well. If you want to stay true to the winter seasonality of the dish, a light, earthy red wine could work here too, but be sure to tone down the cayenne in the recipe.

Ham and Bean Soup

Pair with an off-dry white like King Ferry Riesling Cayuga Lake Semi-Dry Treleaven 2015 (86 points, $15).

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Approximate food costs: $15

  • 20 ounces of mixed soup beans, such as Hurst's 15-bean package (You can find similar mixes from other purveyors, such as Goya 16-bean or Bob's Red Mill 13-bean, but be sure to check the package volume.)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound bone-in country ham, chopped (reserve bone)
  • 1 cup yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 5 ounces chopped spinach (half of a typical frozen spinach package)
  • 1–2 cloves of garlic, diced

1. The night before cooking, rinse the beans and place them in a large pot with around 8 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt. Cover with a lid and let soak overnight.

2. The following evening, drain the water, rinsing the beans again, and refill with 8 cups of fresh water. (There should be at least 2 inches of water covering the surface of the beans.) Bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the ham (including bone), chopped onion and bay leaves. Cover with a lid and cook on medium-low heat for 2 hours, stirring every so often.

3. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer the soup for another 30 minutes, beginning to taste for flavor. The beans should be soft but not mushy, with the skins growing loose and wrinkly. Add more cayenne pepper as desired. Remove bay leaves and ham bone before eating. Serves 8. The soup will keep in the fridge for 4 or 5 days.

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