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All We Can Eat
Posted at 02:30 PM ET, 09/26/2011

The Family Dish: Good to the bone

This hearty soup can start with a secondhand bone. (Domenica Marchetti)

Every so often a ham bone comes into my possession, for which I am always grateful. This is usually thanks to my brother-in-law Darren, who sometimes puts out a ham for family gatherings, and who is generous enough to part with the bone.

Once or twice, when friends have served ham at a dinner party, I have summoned the nerve to ask them for those bones as well.

What can I say? I am unable to resist a good ham bone. I know that when I get my hands on one, a pot of smoky black bean soup will surely follow. 

I grew up eating cannellini beans and borlotti beans and chickpeas — not black beans. But my husband and daughter both adore black beans. My son is another story, but he does love ham so I just cut some meat off the bone and set it aside for him. I think there is something especially alluring about black beans, their murky, purple-black color, and also their dense, velvety texture when cooked, which reminds me a little of chestnuts. 

Now seems to be a good time for black bean soup, what with the weather also being murky and fall being upon us. If you’re lucky, you might find black beans at the farmers market. Even if the beans are dried, it’s likely that they are fresher than the dried black beans you might get at the supermarket. Older beans aren’t necessarily bad; they just take longer to cook; if they are several years old, their texture and quality can suffer. Wherever you get your beans, make sure they are from a place that restocks frequently.

I happen to love the flavor of smoke, so, in addition to the ham bone, I add a hit of both sweet and Spanish smoked paprikas. A few years ago, while making my soup, I wanted to toss in some chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, but I had none in my pantry. What I did have was a jar of chipotle salsa, so I used that instead. I’ve been making the soup that way ever since. I also add a splash of sherry at the end of cooking, which is optional; in my opinion, it adds a sweet note and deepens the overall flavor of the soup. Because this soup is substantial, all you need to go with it is a green salad with a vinegary dressing.

See the recipe after the jump.

Domenica Marchetti is the author of “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle, June 2011) as well as “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy” (Chronicle, 2006) and “Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style” (Chronicle 2008). She blogs at

Smoky Black Bean and Ham Bone Soup

6 servings

Think of this is a black bean version of split pea soup.

To drink: A robust red such as Chianti Classico or Spanish tempranillo.

MAKE AHEAD: The beans need to be soaked overnight.

2 cups dried black beans, picked over to remove any foreign bits

1 meaty ham bone, plus 1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) meat from the bone

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

4 cups water, or more as needed

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)

1 medium clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)

1/8 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 cup chipotle salsa or other tomato-based salsa

1/4 cup dry sherry

Sour cream, for garnish (optional)

Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Put the beans in a bowl and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Let them soak overnight and then drain in a colander set in the sink.

Transfer the beans to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add the ham bone. Pour the broth and water over the beans and add the bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium; partially cover and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the beans are completely tender yet still hold their shape. Add water if the soup seems too thick. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low as needed to maintain gentle bubbling. Turn off the heat when the beans are done; let the soup cool for about 10 minutes.

Use tongs to transfer the ham bone to a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut the meat off the bone in chunks, then cut into small pieces or shred the chunks. The amount of meat you end up with will depend on how meaty the bone is. You’ll need about 1 1/2 cups for the soup. Place the meat side in a bowl; discard the bone.

Discard the bay leaf left in the soup. Use an immersion (stick) blender to coarsely puree the black beans in the broth so that some are mashed and some remain whole. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, puree some of the soup in a blender or use a potato masher to mash up some of the beans.)

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onions, making sure they are evenly coated. Cook for 5 minutes, until they are beginning to soften, then stir in the garlic and cook for 7 minutes to further soften the onions, stirring often to prevent burning or scorching. Sprinkle in both kinds of paprika and the oregano, stirring until well incorporated. Add the salsa and cook for a minute or two, until all the ingredients are well blended.

Transfer the onion mixture to the soup, along with the reserved ham. Stir in the sherry, if using. Reheat the soup over medium-low heat just long enough for it to warm through.

Serve with sour cream and cilantro on the side, if desired.

By Domenica Marchetti  |  02:30 PM ET, 09/26/2011

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