A few weeks ago I helped my friend Tricia throw a soup swap — my first ever experience with this very practical sort of party. I came away with four new-to-me jars of soup — a gift in the cold days of January!
Here's the story of one of those soups: a white bean and bacon bowl, powered up by ham hock and red pepper, and with a little bit of everything that makes a soup good: creamy, brothy, chunky, rich with savory white beans and ham. It's the perfect winter soup, all in one pot.
The central idea of a soup swap is to bring a favorite soup to share with others, and to swap your jars or containers of soup for others. Everyone leaves with the same amount of soup they brought, but a lot more variety.
I toted several delicious jars of soup back home with me, and the timing was good — the next day my husband and I came down with the flu. We crawled out of bed looking for sustenance that evening, and the first soup we opened was this white bean and bacon number.
Carmen's jars of soup at the swap.
I warmed the soup up on the stove and we slowly slurped it, wrapped up in blankets with Kleenex close to hand. The broth was rich and silky, with the deep savoriness that comes from ham bone and long simmering, and it was packed full with creamy, nourishing beans. We ate that soup, bite after bite, and felt a rather magical glow. It had restored us to a better place in life — and I had to have the recipe.
This magical soup was brought to the soup swap by Carmen Keels, a cousin of Chris, Tricia's husband. Carmen actually lives in New York City and was in Ohio for the holidays — lucky us! She was glad to share the recipe, and the inspiration behind it, too.
Carmen, at left, with Tricia, heating up her soup at the soup swap.
Carmen's Soup Inspiration
"The inspiration," she told me, "was my father's maple smoked bacon and an over-abundance of Christmas ham! We had a ham for the first time in years for Christmas. It was sort of an homage to my grandmother who passed away recently. My mom baked a ham, made scalloped potatoes, green beans and even orange Jell-O with carrots and pineapple. A throwback indeed. My grandmother always made that meal for Christmas and Easter. "
"The bacon is another story. In his retirement my father has started smoking his own bacon. He smoked some with maple for Christmas. After cooking it we only had a little left so when it was time to make soup we used the bone from the ham and the rest of the bacon bits for the soup."
Her original recipe called for the ham bone and some of that special maple bacon. But a ham bone can be hard to find, she explained: "I realize now how hard it is to find a plain ham bone without cooking a whole ham. So I am making the soup with a ham hock, which I have also done before."
And not everyone has access to maple bacon, so I added the option to cook regular thick-cut bacon with a tablespoon of maple syrup, which lends a tiny note of sweetness and helps the bacon crisp up.
I made this soup to test, and it hit every note that I remembered from Carmen's magically restorative jar of soup from the swap. It's creamier than it appears in these photos, with a nice body from the pureed beans. It has the silkiness that really only comes from a ham bone or ham hock, and oodles of savory flavor. It's the perfect hearty soup for January.
One thing that is different about this soup: usually I would cook the beans together with the aromatics and bacon. But splitting the cooking processes between two pots makes sense here, as it halves the time. You can cook the beans separately while chopping vegetables, cooking bacon, and sautéing aromatics. It also gives a chunkier soup, with more discrete pieces of vegetables. It's up to you, though; if you have time, and prefer to dirty only one pot, you can cook everything together. Just add the beans, broth, and ham hock after the bacon and aromatics are ready, and cook until the beans are creamy. — Faith
Carmen's White Bean & Maple Bacon Soup
1 pound dried white beans, such as navy or Great Northern
1 ham hock or ham bone
8 cups low-sodium chicken stock or broth
7 ounces thick-cut maple bacon (4 to 5 slices), diced*
1 onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 ounces ham, diced (about 1/2 cup)
4 stems thyme
1/2 lemon, zested and juiced
Fresh parsley, chopped
Cover the beans with water in a large pot and soak overnight. Drain the water. (If you forget to soak the beans, do a fast soak with them the hour before cooking.)
Add the ham hock and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and partially cover. Cook for 1 to 2 hours or until the beans are tender. Remove the ham hock.
While the beans cook slowly cook the bacon in a 5-quart or larger Dutch oven on medium heat for 7 to 10 minutes or until the fat renders out and the bacon is crispy. Push the bacon to the side and add the onion, red pepper, carrots, celery, and garlic. Sprinkle very lightly with salt and sauté for 10 minutes or until soft. Add the diced ham and thyme. If the beans are not yet ready, remove the bacon and aromatics mixture from the heat until they are.
When the beans are soft, mash or puree about 2 cups of beans then add to the pot with the bacon and aromatics. Pour in the rest of the broth and beans and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and cook for at least 15 minutes, but ideally much longer so the flavors have time to mingle. Add the lemon zest, juice, and finely chopped parsley to taste.
The cooled soup only improves after a night in the refrigerator. It will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days and it freezes well.
Maple Bacon Substitute: If you do not have maple bacon, add 1 tablespoon maple syrup to the bacon as it renders.
Seasoning Caution: There's quite a bit of salt in this recipe, between the ham shank, the diced ham, and the bacon. So taste as you go, and don't add significant salt until the end of cooking, after you've tasted the finished soup.
Alternate Cooking Methods: This soup is even better when cooked slowly over a whole day. Add the cooked beans and sautéed aromatics and bacon to a slow cooker and cook on low for up to 8 hours. Or cook in a 275°F oven for several hours.
Recipe Shortcuts: This recipe can be made with canned beans, and without the ham shank, but you'll notice a difference. "Make sure you don’t skimp on the bacon, and really it’s worth the extra trip to the butcher for that bone," Carmen says. The lemon juice, zest and parsley are not to be missed as they give the soup wonderful brightness.
(Image credits: Faith Durand; Christopher Keels Photography)