For years I, like many cooks, rarely measured ingredients. We eat a lot of hearty soups, salads, and one-pot meals in our house, and this sort of cooking lends itself well to the “a-little-of-this-a-little-of-that” approach.
When I began sharing recipes through The Fountain Avenue Kitchen, however, I knew that I had to be precise. When preparing a new recipe, people appreciate exact measurements. A “dash” or a “glug” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Weights can be helpful as the size of a potato or chicken breast, for example, can vary a lot. And though the level of seasoning is largely a matter of personal preference, many like to see a specific amount of salt and pepper listed instead of “season to taste.”
Black bean soup is a dish that I have made often over the years, yet until recently I had no firm recipe. So while this should have been an easy recipe to make, photograph, and include in this column, I ended up making it three times!
First, my husband kindly went to the grocery store for me and returned with something other than the necessary smoked ham hock. I gave it a go with a stand-in for this key ingredient, but the flavor fell short. (Smoked ham hocks are available in the meat aisle of most grocery stores and at Weaver’s at Central Market.)
The second time, I got the ham hock and adjusted the amount of liquid. As I finished simmering the soup in my usual way–on the stovetop–it occurred to me that many people might prefer to use a slow cooker for this recipe.
Knowing that this version may require less liquid to achieve the same consistency, I made the soup one more time. (I did space out the batches and am happy to report that my family never tired of it!) To simplify the slow cooker preparation, I skipped the initial step of sautéing the vegetables. As it turned out, there was no perceptible loss of flavor with this helpful shortcut. I love it when easy and delicious go hand-in-hand.
Another timesaving tip I often employ is to chop the veggies–in this case the onion, celery, jalapeño, and garlic–ahead of time and store in a covered bowl or plastic bag in the fridge. The last time I made this soup, I wanted to start it in the morning before I left home, so I chopped the veggies the night before. I also covered the beans with water and soaked them overnight. In the morning, two minutes was all it took to throw everything into the slow cooker, turn it on, and head out the door.
- 1 pound dried black beans (not canned)
- 1 ham hock (this is a meaty bone that has been smoked and adds exceptional flavor to the broth)
- 2 medium onions, diced (no bigger than 8 ounces each; I often use one red, one yellow onion, but use what you have on hand)
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 jalapeño pepper, minced (I like to keep the seeds for a little heat, but you may remove; hot sauce or crushed red pepper may be substituted)
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste (see notes)
- 7 or 9 cups water, according to cooking method selected below
- 1/4 cup dry sherry (the kind you could drink, not cooking sherry; see notes)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper (I use approximately 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper)
- Optional garnishes: cooked rice, chopped cilantro, diced peppers, sliced scallions, Greek yogurt or sour cream, chopped hard-boiled eggs, lemon or lime wedges, hot sauce
Soak the black beans. There are two good options: First, you may place the beans in a bowl and add water to cover by at least two inches. Cover and let stand overnight or up to 24 hours, refrigerating if the kitchen is very warm. Drain well and discard the soaking liquid. Alternatively, for a quick soak, pour boiling water over the beans to cover by two inches. Let stand for at least one hour or up to a few hours. Drain as with the first method.
For a slow cooker method: Place the onions, celery, garlic, jalapeño, drained beans, ham hock, tomato paste, and 7 cups of water in the slow cooker. Do not add the sherry, salt, or pepper at this point. Cover and cook on low heat for 7-8 hours or until the beans are tender. You may instead cook on high heat for approximately half the time.
For a stovetop version: Heat a tablespoon or two of olive or vegetable oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Sauté the onions, celery, and jalapeño until tender, about 5-7 minutes, adding the garlic in the last 30 seconds. Add 9 cups of water along with the drained beans, ham hock, and tomato paste, and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the beans are tender, about two hours. (Test the beans after approximately 1 1/2 hours to check for doneness.)
For both versions: When the beans are tender, remove the ham hock to a plate, and allow to cool for a few minutes. In the meantime, purée the bean mixture in a blender or with a handheld immersion blender. For ease, I like to use an immersion blender and keep the soup a little chunky. If you are using a blender and prefer not to completely purée the soup, blend half of the soup.
Discard the ham bone and any fat, and dice or shred the meat. Return the meat to the slow cooker or pot along with the salt, pepper, and sherry. Cook for a few more minutes to heat through. At this point, if you prefer the soup to be thicker, you may simmer a few more minutes with the lid off. The soup will also thicken slightly as it sits.
Serve with toppings of choice.
- While I seldom use sherry, there are a few recipes to which it adds exceptional flavor. Sherry will keep for years, so there is no need to worry about spoilage if you purchase a bottle and use it infrequently.
- A tube of tomato paste is perfect for recipes requiring a small quantity. If using a can, freeze the remaining paste in 1 tablespoon “globs” or in an ice cube tray for future, pre-measured use. (See photo below for another easy option.)
A great tip for leftover tomato paste: Place the unused portion in a freezer bag and spread into approximately tablespoon-size portions with your fingers or a dull knife. The paste is thick so it won’t run back together. Freeze and break off portions as needed. Note: A 6-ounce can of tomato paste contains roughly 10 tablespoons.