As Dean Martin would croon, “When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that’s amore.“
From the minute I buy a cooked ham, I start thinking about the soup I’m going to make with the leftover ham bone. The soup I love to make with that ham bone is Pasta e Fagioli, AKA pasta and beans, a classic Italian comfort soup. And, once I start making the soup, forget it, I start humming Dean Martin’s song, That’s Amore. Ad nauseam.
I usually pick up a spiral-cut ham to have in the house for sandwiches during the holidays. This Easter, I didn’t have a full house or a ham, but it is so automatic for me to make (and want) a hearty ham bone soup after a holiday that I drove to our local Honey Baked Ham store Monday morning to see if they had any ham bones for sale in their freezer. I was in luck, they were having one of their post-holiday buy-one-get-one-free sales, and I was able to pick up two meaty bones for seven dollars.
Technique Time: How to Add Layers of Flavor to a Soup
One of the cooking techniques I’ve learned over the years is the benefit of slowly sautéing chopped vegetables and aromatics in olive oil to create a flavorful foundation for soups, sauces, and stews.
Depending on who taught you how to cook, this flavor base is known as a soffritto, a mirepoix, or the “Holy Trinity.” For example, the French flavor base is called a mirepoix and includes two parts onion to one part celery and one part carrot, all of it chopped and sautéed in butter or duck fat. The Italians start with a soffritto that includes carrots, onions, and celery often with the addition of garlic, fennel, and parsley, and all of it sautéed in olive oil. In Cajun cooking, they have the “Holy Trinity” which consists of 3 parts celery, 2 parts onion, and 1 part sweet bell pepper, all of it sautéed in butter or oil. It is helpful to know these ratios as you start to create your own recipes.
When making soups and even tomato sauces, you can add another layer of flavor by being intentional about what you use for the soup’s liquid base; the soup’s medium for flavor and heat. When you add raw or pre-roasted meat bones and simmer for a while, the bones’ marrow is released into the soup, and now you have enriched your soup or sauce even more.
Finally, when making soup, you can add yet another layer of flavor to the vegetables you choose to use, such as the stewed tomatoes, beans, and fresh greens I used in this recipe.
When you use this many layers of flavor, you’ll find you need to add a lot less salt, if any, to your recipe. I didn’t add salt to this soup because there is already plenty of it in the ham and cheese rind.
A few words on the main ingredients used to make Pasta e Fagioli.
I start with a 20-ounce package of dried beans. The package comes with a seasoning packet that I have never used. In a pinch, you could use three cans of cooked beans, rinsed and drained.
Take a moment to admire how pretty the beans look as you rinse and inspect them for tiny rocks and dirt. I love the different shapes and textures.
Their color intensifies when rinsed, reminding me of pebbles rolling on the beach with the waves.
You will need to soak the beans for a few hours to soften them, and then partially cook them before you start making this soup.
The Ham Bone
Recently, I happened to be at my favorite meat market, Hampton Meats, in Hopkinsville, KY on the day they were butchering a pig. I’ve been there on days when half of a cow was hanging there, too. There is nothing like seeing an animal carcass hanging on a hook to make you take a moment to reflect on the source of your food. I have a copy of the “Meat Reference Manual” issued in 1942 by the U.S. Army for mess sergeants. I like the graphics of their meat charts and refer to them often.
Have you ever wondered why, when you get to the end of a spiral cut ham, getting the meat off the bone is no longer easy or pretty? It’s because the pig’s bulky ball and socket hip-joint are hidden in there. I dissect so you don’t have to.
Many of the cool weather greens growing in my backyard kitchen garden right now, such as kale, cabbage, chard, and spinach are suitable to use in soup because their leaves are thick and won’t disintegrate in the soup like lettuce would do. In the photo on the left, I’m growing “Alcosa” cabbage, a sweet and tasty variety of cabbage. I use the leaves while they are still young rather than letting them grow into a ball. In the picture on the right, I am growing “Winterbor” and “Red Russian” kale and “Bright Lights” chard. All will work well in this soup. Other choices that would work are spinach, collards, and escarole.
20-ounce bag of dried beans, picked over and rinsed
5 stalks celery (1/2 pound), finely chopped
4 carrots (1/2 pound), finely chopped
1 large onion (1 pound), finely chopped
1 small head garlic (1 ounce), finely chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cooked and meaty ham bone, trimmed of visible fat
2 cans “Italian Recipe” stewed tomatoes, puréed first
½ of the heel of a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 whole bay leaves
12 cups water (3 quarts)
8 cups greens: cabbage, kale, chard, spinach (greens optional)
1 box ditalini pasta
Mise en Place:
1. To cook dried beans: Place rinsed beans in about 10 cups of water. Do not add salt to the water. Bring to a rapid boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1½ hours. They should still be somewhat firm, but edible. Drain and set aside.
2. Pull some of the meat off the ham bone to use to sauté the soffritto. Set aside.
3. Add olive oil to a large frying pan and get it started heating up. Next, add the soffritto, the carrots, onions, celery and garlic and pieces of ham. Sauté over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, frequently stirring, while vegetables become translucent and very lightly browned.
In a large soup pot add the sautéed soffritto, the partially cooked beans, the ham bone, the 12 cups of water, the puréed stewed tomatoes, the cheese rind, and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once the soup comes to a boil, turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally. Test the beans to make sure they are cooked before adding the greens.
Add the greens.
Cook for five more minutes. Turn heat off and remove soup pot from the hot burner.
Pull the ham bone out of the pot and place it on a cutting board. Pull the meat off the bone, cut it into bite-sized pieces, and return the meat to the pot.
Cook the pasta:
Put a pot of salted water on the stove top to cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. I never cook pasta directly in the soup because it drinks up all the soup’s liquid. Store the cooked pasta in a separate container from the soup, so the noodles do not become mushy.
To serve soup, put a scoopful of ditalini in each bowl, top with soup, and pass the grated Reggiano cheese!
Or, serve it without pasta.
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