We had a little taste of fall this past week—rainy, chilly and gray for several days. My husband Don thought this was a great time for some comfort food. My thoughts were going in the same direction, too, and when my friend Deb’s special guest came up from Texas, I knew we needed to head south for a dinner. What could say “southern comfort” better than ham hocks and beans?
My take on traditional ham hocks and beans uses fresh herbs from my garden and onions and garlic from my market buddies. My friend Dara, owner of SS Backwards Longhorns sold me some ham hocks a few weeks ago, and I knew they were going to be spectacular in this dish.
Even though I’m a vegetarian, I can appreciate the high quality of local meat I get at the farmer’s market. Dara and her husband Scott deal mostly in grass-fed beef, but for her market customers, a limited amount of pork is also available.
So follow me down south for some ham and beans, but keep in mind this is kind of a long journey. It takes a bit of an investment in time. Like all good southern cooking, it’s completely from scratch, from the ham stock to the dried northern beans. Plan to begin this dish at least one day in advance of serving it. If you have never made a meat stock from scratch, you might want to review my 2015 Thanksgiving recipe for turkey stock, which gives a detailed description of creating flavorful stock. Be brave because, if you have ham lovers, this recipe is worth it.
- One medium yellow onion
- Three whole cloves and about a quarter-teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- Large sprigs of fresh sage, thyme and rosemary, tied with kitchen string
- Two fresh bay leaves (Use dry if fresh are unavailable.)
- Six or seven cups water (might need more as cooking progresses)
- Two to three pounds meaty ham hocks (I used a total of seven.)
- Two whole garlic cloves
- Two stalks celery with leaves, if possible (Though none was available, I fantasized about using fresh fennel instead of celery. Would love to give this a try!)
- Two large carrots, cut in chunks
- Two cups dry white beans, sorted and rinsed (I used Northern, but I think I will try cannellini next time around for a little bit more delicacy.)
- One quarter-cup olive oil
- Three cloves minced garlic
- One medium yellow onion, chopped
- One and one-half cups chopped carrot
- One and one-half cups chopped celery
- One to two tablespoons each fine-chopped fresh thyme, rosemary and sage
- Two tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Three to four tablespoons lemon juice
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- To prepare ham hocks, stud onion with cloves. Place all the ham hock ingredients in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer two and a half to three hours. Mind the pot and skim off the bitter foam as it forms. Remove hocks from stock. Strain stock through a sieve into a large bowl or measuring cups for easy pouring later; discard vegetable solids. Cool stock to room temperature. Cover and chill hocks and stock separately for eight hours or overnight.
- To prepare beans, sort and wash them and place in a large Dutch oven. Cover with water to two inches above beans. Cover and let stand eight hours or overnight. Drain.
- Remove meat from bones and shred. Discard bones, skin, and fat. Skim solidified fat from surface of stock and discard fat. Reserve the stock.
- Combine beans and reserved stock in a Dutch oven. You may want to warm the stock a bit before adding in the beans because the cold stock will be gelatinous and very thick. Add chopped thyme, sage and rosemary and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a steady low simmer and cook until beans are tender, two to two-half hours.
- While the beans are cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion, carrots and celery with a generous sprinkle of salt. Cook until glossy. Add the garlic, another pinch of salt and continue to cook until the vegetables are tender and aromatic, about 15 minutes.
- When the beans are tender, dump the vegetables and their flavorful liquid into the pot, along with the shredded ham. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper. Cook about one hour more on the lowest possible heat to marry your ingredients.
- Just before serving, add the chopped parsley and lemon juice. Give it a good stir and serve.
This dish takes a minimum of two days to prepare. You can even complete the steps for day one up to two days out from serving the meal, if that helps your kitchen schedule. The prep and cook times above refer to day two, the time it will take to prep the vegetables, cooked the pre-soaked beans and finish everything off.
I rounded out my dinner with skillet cornbread and honey butter, some squash casserole (for the vegetarians), a wilted greens salad and some…wait for it…roasted okra. Yep, I have finally embraced this plentiful, local delicacy. And next week, we’ll explore three ways to fix it! So stay tuned.
Long for Comfort but Short on Time?
I’d be the first to admit that my ham hocks and beans require investment. And, when you’ve got the time, that investment pays off big. But often, we don’t have two days to devote to a dish, even one that provides a dividend of an additional weeknight warmup meal or two.
The kitchen staff at Delicious Living Magazine is here to help. Perfectly timed for fall, their October issue features a healthy pumpkin chili that is pretty simple to throw together, taking advantage of pantry staples and seasonal flavors. I hope you’ll give it a try!
So whether you go long or short, get comfortable. It’s fall!