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FEATURE: Cooking Local Ham and Black Bean Soup with Sweet Potatoes and Cilantro Cream

December 17, 2010

-1 pound dried black beans (about 2 cups), rinsed, soaked in 4 quarts of water overnight (or at least 6 hours), rinsed again and drained
-1 lb smoked ham hock or shank (or the leftovers of a ham dinner or even some high quality bacon)
-3 bay leaves
-5 cups water
-1/8 teaspoon baking soda (to help the beans cook properly)
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-4 Tbsp olive oil
-1 large yellow onion, chopped fine
-1 medium sweet potato, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces (can substitute 2 large carrots)
-1/2 carrot, chopped fine
-1-2 celery ribs, chopped fine
-another 1/2 teaspoon salt and plenty of fresh ground black pepper
-4 medium garlic cloves, minced
-1 Tbsp ground cumin
-1 teaspoon chile powder
-2 cups chicken stock (veggie stock is ok, as water is alright in a pinch)
-1 Tbsp molasses or brown sugar
-1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
-2 Tbsp fresh lime juice (can substitute lemon juice)
-1 cup Chopped fresh cilantro
-2 green onions, chopped fine
-1 cup sour cream

To cook this hearty soup, place the beans and ham hock in a 4-quart, thick-bottomed pot. Add 5 cups water, bay leaves, salt and baking soda. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a low simmer. Cover and let cook 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes, until beans are tender. Remove bay leaves. Remove ham hock from the pot. Cut remaining ham meat away from the bone and cut into small, bite-sized pieces, set aside to add back to the soup later. We’ve now infused the beans with a delicious ham flavor.

Next, heat the olive oil in a large 8-quart thick-bottomed pot on medium high until the oil is hot, but not smoking. Add the onions, celery, sweet potato and another 1/2 teaspoon of salt or so. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and softened, about 10-15 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add the cumin, chili powder, and garlic, cook for an additional 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

When the veggies are all cooked, add the beans along with their cooking liquid, plus the chicken stock, molasses, and bell pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove 4 cups of the soup (about half of it) to a blender. Purée until smooth and return to the pot of soup. (You may need to purée the soup in smaller portions, depending on the size of your blender. Don't fill the blender more than half way at a time and hold the lid while blending. BE CARFEUL! I’ve gotten a burn or two in my time trying to puree hot soups).

Add back the ham pieces to the soup. Add the fresh aqueezed lime juice. Adjust seasonings and salt to taste. If you find it a bit on the sweet side, add a bit more lime juice. I also like to add a bit more sriracha hot chile sauce, because I love spicy foods.

You may find after all this cooking time that the soup has gotten really thick, almost like a stew. Personally I like it this way, but you can always add more water to get the consistency you want. Finally, lets mix up the chopped cilantro and the sour cream, to make a tasty topping for the soup. Add a dollop of the cilantro cream to each bowl, plus a pinch of green onions. You can also grate on a bit of extra sharp cheddar cheese if you so desire.