Last week, my local grocery store had their hams on sale for Christmas, so I bought a small butt ham that weighed about five pounds. I roasted the ham, which was amazing, but I will tell you how I did that another day. The point is, after slicing the ham for sandwiches and breakfast meat and dinner, I was left with a nice bone and some scraps of ham meat, fat, and skin. But not a lot, because I love some damn ham. Because I know somebody is going to ask, I weighed it, and had about half a pound of loose meat left, plus whatever I couldn’t get off the bone. I stuck it all in the fridge.
A few days later, it was cold outside, and I didn’t have a lot of work commitments, and felt like it would be a perfect day for a pot of beans and cornbread. I took a pound of pinto beans and poured them out on a cookie sheet, looking for rocks and dirt. You just pour them out and sort of pick through them with your fingers, shifting them around until you make sure they are clean. Then put them in a large pot and put cold water in the pot until you have about two inches of water over the top of the beans. They need to soak in the water a few hours, and it works better if you stir the soaking beans every once in a while, to make sure water and oxygen gets everywhere.
Now, you don’t have to do this – the soaking I mean. But they taste better if you do. The fresher your beans, the less essential the soaking is, but dried beans look the same whether six months or six years old, and so I always soak them. But don’t soak them overnight, like some folks do, or they will break down too much. Four hours is plenty, two is sufficient, and in a pinch, again, none is probably acceptable.
When they are done soaking, pour the water off the beans, and then put more cold water in the bean pot, again about two inches over the beans. Don’t drown the beans – this isn’t soup, and it isn’t mush, this is beans. Put your ham bone and ham scraps, including the skin and fat, in the pot too, and don’t worry too much if the water doesn’t cover every little bit of the bone. Turn the heat to high.
As an aside – some folk are going to panic about the mention of ham skin going in this. Just cut it into small pieces and go with it. Most of the fat and collagen is going to dissolve and turn into flavor.
While you are waiting for the water to boil, get the rest of your ingredients ready. You need a small onion, maybe the size of a door knob. I like a sweet yellow onion for this, but I imagine any onion is better than no onion. Peel it and cut it into long strips from pole to pole. Peel a large clove of garlic. Put the onions and the clove of garlic (whole) in the water with the beans, and add ½ a tablespoon of salt and ½ a tablespoon of sugar.
I admit the sugar and garlic are controversial choices, and ones I did not grow up with, but choices that dramatically elevate the dish. Also, the beans will probably need another ½ tablespoon of salt later in the cooking, but a lot depends on how salty the ham was, and you won’t know for a while. As my momma is fond of saying, it’s easier to add it than to take it out.
After your beans get to a rolling boil, you want to back off to a medium or low – whatever it takes to do a slow boil, just a bit more than a simmer. You want this to go on, with your pot covered, for about an hour, but stir the beans every 10-15 minutes. If you are doing other things, just do it as you pass through the kitchen – no need to set a timer or anything.
After your hour passes, turn it lower to a simmer and stir every so often. You will also need to check to make sure you don’t boil all your liquid away. I end up keeping a glass of water on the counter by the stove when I’m making beans, and I add a bit from time to time, always making sure to not drown them. Again, this isn’t soup. You want to keep an inch, no more than two, of water over the top of the beans.
Two hours in, check for salt, and most likely, add another half tablespoon. This is one of the danger points – too much salt makes them not fit to eat. By now, the broth is brown and has a filmy appearance to it as the meat and marrow dissolves into the bean juice and makes something amazing.
I don’t know how long this dish takes to make – there are a lot of variables. Fresher beans cook faster than older beans, and temperature settings like High and Medium are subjective. And I haven’t ever cooked on your stove. But between two and a half and three hours, take a couple of beans out and mash them between your fingers. If the bean splits in two, keep cooking. But a perfect bean will be slightly firm, and yet mash evenly between your fingers. Think of the difference between a raw potato and a baked potato. We are going for a baked potato here. If nobody is looking, you can eat a few and see how they taste. The meat will, by this time, have fallen off the bone and left it clean.
When you plate it up, make sure you put some meat pieces in each serving. The meat is very much part of this dish, as is the cornbread that traditionally is served with it. I like it in a bowl with lots of broth to sop up with my cornbread, but some folk like it on a plate. Either way, I am fond of putting some pickled green tomato relish (we call this relish chow-chow, but I understand people from north of here put cabbage in their chow-chow, and I don’t know how to feel about that.) on it, but my Dad always put pepper sauce on his. I knew one guy in the Marines that put ketchup on his beans – I never did trust that guy. Let your conscience be your guide.
You should, I am convinced, always have some dried beans in your pantry. Beans are cheap – a pound of pintos is roughly a dollar, give or take, and will feed six people. Four if they are hungry. They keep for ages. They are a wonderful source of protein. And they taste amazing.
You were probably with me up until that last sentence. But they do – correctly seasoned, like these are, beans are a miracle food that have kept many a poor person nourished and fed and happy. They are, done right, a poor man’s feast.