EVERYONE'S got a bone to pick when it comes to Easter ham. Whether you fed two or an extended family, chances are there is still plenty of that Easter ham under wraps. And just when you think you've cut the last for a final sandwich or jambon persille, just when you're ready to chuck the raggedy remains and to reclaim the refrigerator space, just when you think you've exhausted your hamming-it-up repertoire, that Easter feast now long past offers up its very essence--the ham bone.
Southern cooks and soup-makers have always recognized the strengths of this leftover. Even such contemplative souls as Henry David Thoreau praised its virtue. It is life near the ham bone where it is the sweetest, he said, to paraphrase a bit.
It adds backbone to soups, particularly split pea and lentil. And despite the current mania for lightly steamed, half-raw vegetables, nothing tastes better than spring greens simmered with a ham bone, as any cook south of the Mason-Dixon line will tell you.
There are two ways to approach your ham bone, both very simple. Either it can go directly in the soup pot along with the other ingredients, or you can simmer it in a quantity of water to create a stock for the soup or greens.
And for those of you who opted for lamb this year and don't happen to have a ham bone handy, you can cheat a little. Smoked ham hocks, which are available in most local stores, work just as well. Remove them a half an hour or so before completing the dish, and when they are cool enough to handle, remove the meat and return it, chopped, to the pot.
One major caveat: Ignore those pallid pink things masquerading as hams in the meat case. For the following dishes to have an authentic flavor, you need the remains of a good country ham, Smithfield or smoked picnic. And for that reason, also ignore the salt shaker since these hams will usually provide enough saltiness to suit your taste.
Before you pick the ham bone absolutely clean, try one of these.
CHRISTINE'S CUBAN BEAN SOUP (8 to 10 servings)
The price of saffron is shocking, but remember two things: A little goes a long way, and given the generous quantity this recipe yields, it's still a bargain. Don't attempt this soup without it. The saffron tints the potatoes a lovely yellow and adds a subtle but pervasive favor to the ham broth. 1 meaty ham bone (with 2 to 3 cups ham, if possible) 3 1/2 quarts water 1 medium onion, chopped 1 pound smoked sausage, sliced 4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed 1 teaspoon saffron 2 1-pound cans garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained Freshly ground pepper to taste
Cut as much meat as you can off the ham bone, chop and refrigerate until it's needed. Place the ham bone in a large soup pot, add the water and onion and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and place a lid slightly askew over the pot. Simmer stock for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Discard the ham bone and add the smoked sausage, potatoes, reserved diced ham, saffron and garbanzo beans to the stock. Season with freshly ground pepper. Continue to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Note: This soup does not freeze well, but may be kept in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for five or six days.
WASH DAY RED BEANS AND RICE (4 to 6 servings)
This is a Monday night classic in New Orleans. Long before five-speed-cycle washers, Louisiana cooks used to serve this on wash day when elaborate preparations were out of the question. The authentic dish calls for andouille, a mild Creole sausage, to be served on the side, but sliced smoked beef sausage or kielbasa can substitute. The sausage can either be added to the pot to cook along with the other ingredients or cooked separately and served on the side. 1 pound dried red beans 2 quarts water 1 meaty ham bone 1 pound andouille, smoked beef sausage or kielbasa, cut into chunks 2 cups chopped onions 1 bunch scallions, chopped 1 green pepper, seeded and chopped 2 stalks celery, chopped 2 bay leaves Pinch of thyme Hot pepper sauce to taste Salt and pepper to taste Cooked rice for serving Chopped scallions for garnish
Rinse the red beans and pick out any bad ones. Place in a large soup pot, cover with 2 quarts water and set on medium heat. Add the ham bone and sausage (if you wish to cook it with the rest of the ingredients). As this begins to simmer, add the onions, scallions, green pepper, celery and seasonings except for the salt. (Do not add salt the first several hours of cooking or it will cause the bean skins to toughen.) Lower the heat to a simmer after the beans come to a boil; simmer for several hours.
Mash some of the beans, using a wooden spoon, against the side of the pot. This will produce a creamy smoothness characteristic of Creole red beans. After about 4 hours, they will be ready to serve over rice garnished with chopped scallions and the sausage, if you have cooked this separately. With cornbread and a green salad, you've got a cheap and nutritious meal. Adapted from "La Bouche Creole," Leon E. Soniat, Jr.
LEAFY GREENS (6 to 8 servings)
"Boiled leafy greens are not fully appreciated because most people don't know how to prepare them," observes a wonderful Southern cook, Edna Lewis, in her "The Taste of Country Cooking." Here's how it's done. About 1 1/2 pounds of smoked pork shoulder, a side of cured bacon or 1 meaty ham bone 1 1/2 to 2 quarts water 3 pounds fresh greens*
Place the meat in a heavy pot with the water and simmer gently for an hour or so until you have a rich stock. You will need about 1 quart of stock for 3 pounds of greens. Wash the greens well to remove any clinging dirt and drain. Bring the stock to a slow boil and plunge the greens into the pot, stirring them down with a wooden spoon so that all are blanched. Press the greens down lightly in the stock and cook them uncovered quickly but gently for no more than 15 or 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let them sit in broth, partially covered. When ready to serve, gently reheat and drain before transferring to serving dish.
*Note: Greens should be fresh and crisp with any tough stems or blemished leaves pulled off and discarded. Suitable candidates, depending on the season: kale, rape, mustard, lamb's-quarters, wild watercress, purslane, broccoli rabb or turnip-top leaves or beet tops. If you are not sure that the greens you purchase are impeccably fresh, blanch them first for 3 minutes in boiling water before adding to the stock. This step will help to remove any bitterness. Adapted from "The Taste of Country Cooking," Edna Lewis.
MARCELLA HAZAN'S PASTA E FAGIOLI (Beans and Pasta Soup) (6 servings)
The following soup is another classic, this time from Italy. If you plan to freeze it, follow the preparation steps to the point where the pasta is added. Once the soup is thawed and reheated, you can add the pasta and the finishing touch of cheese. 2 tablespoons chopped onion 1/4 cup olive oil 3 tablespoons carrots, chopped 3 tablespoons celery, chopped 1 meaty ham bone or 3 to 4 pork ribs 2/3 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes with their juice 2 pounds fresh cranberry beans (unshelled weight) or 1 cup dried great northern beans (cooked) or 1 20-ounce can white kidney beans 3 cups homemade beef broth or 1 cup canned beef broth plus 2 cups water Salt and freshly ground pepper 6 ounces small tubular pasta 2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
Place onion and oil in a heavy pot and saute' over medium heat until pale gold in color. Add the carrots, celery and ham bone and saute' for about 10 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes with their juice, turn the heat down to medium low and cook for 10 minutes more. If you are using fresh cranberry beans, shell them and rinse under cold water. Add to the pot. Stir two or three times then add the broth. Cover the pot and adjust the heat so that the liquid is bubbling at a very moderate boil, a bit more than a simmer, and cook for 45 minute to an hour until the beans are cooked. (If you are using pre-cooked beans, cook the tomatoes for 20 minutes instead of 10, then add the drained beans. Let the beans cook in the tomatoes for 5 minutes, stirring thoroughly, then add the broth and bring to a moderate boil.) Scoop up about 1/2 cup of the beans and mash them in a food mill, food processor or with a potato masher in a small bowl, then return to pot. Adjust seasoning carefully; the broth may already be sufficiently salty. Check soup for density; more broth or water may be added. (If freezing, stop at this point, remove ham bone, cool soup and place in a container and freeze.)
Add pasta to soup. If you are using fresh, then cook only for 1 minute; if using dried, stop cooking while pasta is still very firm to the bite. The soup should rest for about 10 minutes before serving, so the pasta will continue to soften. When ready to serve, remove ham bone and stir in grated cheese. Adapted from "The Classic Italian Cookbook," Marcella Hazan
CREOLE BLACK BEAN SOUP (8 to 10 servings)
While the above dishes are homey and peasanty in taste, this black bean soup can be a prelude to an elegant dinner. It also freezes well. 3 cups dried black beans 1 1/2 cups 2-inch pieces of slab bacon 1 meaty ham bone 6 tablespoons butter 3 large onions, finely minced 4 cloves garlic, finely minced 3 leeks with some green included, thinly sliced 2 bay leaves 1 large sprig fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried 1 teaspoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon ground coriander Freshly ground black pepper 10 to 12 cups light meat stock (if using canned beef broth, dilute by using 1 cup broth to roughly 2 cups water) Salt, if necessary 1 cup madeira 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice Sour cream, thin lemon slices for garnish
Place beans in a large pot, cover with cold water and let them soak overnight. Drain beans the following day and set aside. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the bacon and ham bone and cook 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Melt the butter in a deep pot or flame-proof casserole, add the bacon cubes and cook until almost crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper toweling. To the remaining fat in the pot, add the onions, garlic and leeks. Cook the mixture until soft and lightly browned, then add the bay leaves, thyme, oregano, beans, ham bone, bacon, coriander and a good pinch of pepper. Add the stock and bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot or casserole tightly. Simmer over very low heat for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. After the soup has been simmering for more than an hour, taste for salt and add if necessary. When the soup is done, cool it slightly. Pure'e half of the soup in a food mill, blender or food processor. Return it to pot with the madeira. Heat the soup but do not let it come to a boil. Add lemon juice, taste for seasoning. Serve each portion topped with a spoonful of sour cream and a very thin slice of lemon. From "The Peasant Kitchen," Perla Meyers