Cold weather snuck in the door here in the south like an unwelcomed family member. We’re suffering through a week worth of temperatures in the single digits and low teens, and the outlook for the next week doesn’t seem much better. Our schools have been closed, our kids and pets are suffering cabin fever. And the most important thing on our mind is what can we do to keep warm.
When the weather gets this cold, I crave comfort food. One of my go-to favorites in the winter is a tried-and-true southern and Appalachian staple, soup beans and cornbread. If you’re going to make it, you have to do it right, which can take up to a full 24 hours. Don’t expect to open a can and pop it in the microwave; that’s just not natural.
To make a real batch of soup beans, you have to start with dried beans. I usually go with all pinto beans, but if you like other types of beans, feel free to use them. Black beans, though, just won’t work. Their flavor is too strong and will overpower any other bean. To make 8 servings, you want to use about 3 cups of dried beans.
Soaking the dried beans before they’re cooked is imperative, if you try to cook them as-is, you’re going to end up with a gritty nasty mess, not to mention the worst case of intestinal discomfort (read: gas) ever. Cover the beans with room temperature water, just enough to completely cover the beans. Typically you want to soak the beans for 8 to 12 hours, changing the water at least 2 times. If you’re in a hurry, though, you can soak them in as little as three hours by pre-boiling the water for soaking.
Once you’ve soaked the beans, drain them one last time. You’ll now start adding flavor to the beans, mainly in the form of some broth, either beef or vegetable. Add four cups of broth and four cups of water and bring everything to a rolling boil. Back the heat off to a slow boil for a couple of hours, and then down again to a simmer for a couple more hours.
When you add the stock, or as you’re cooking, you’ll be tempted to add seasoning. Resist the urge, seriously. We’ll get to adding spices, but we don’t want to do that just yet. Adding pepper will make the soup too strong, adding salt while cooking will actually toughen the bean casing. About 20 minutes before the beans are done you’ll taste the soup and add salt, pepper, or any other spice.
If you’re shooting for a “traditional” southern soup bean, you’ll also add pork in some form. The two most common are hamhock, or salted pork belly. Personally, I prefer the pork belly because it’s easier to handle, and it adds some really nice seasoning without adding more salt. With the addition of either, make sure you give them enough time to cook through before serving. Hamhock, because of the bone, is obviously going to take a bit longer.
It may have taken hours, or even a day, but the satisfaction that soup beans will bring on a cold winter day is something that I wouldn’t trade for anything. What’s your go-to food when the weather is cold?