Ham and Great Northern Bean Soup

Americans waste lots of good food today, between thirty and forty percent of our food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Some of that waste occurs during harvesting and processing food, but the USDA estimates that thirty-one percent of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.

We, of course, are the consumers, and we all waste food. When surveyed, most Americans feel that they waste less food than their friends and neighbors. In other words, like the parents in the Prairie Home Companion city of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average,” we all believe than we are below average in wasting food. As a logical statement, this must be a self-evident falsehood.

Since I think that we waste less food than most people, I offer a little quiz to determine whether you actually do waste less food than Jerri and I.

Question 1: Do you eat bananas after they have turned brown?
Question 2: Do you cut the “bad spot” off the apple you forgot about and eat it? Question 3: Do you save three tablespoons of mashed potatoes for lunch?
Question 4: Do you save the tablespoon of leftover gravy to put on the potatoes?
Question 5: Do you boil the turkey carcass, pick off the meat and save the broth?
Question 6: Do you save ham bones to make soup?

If you can answer yes to all six, you are doing very well. But if you want to compete with Jerri, you have to answer yes to this question also.

Question 7: Do you clean out the shortening can with a spatula to save the last bit of grease to season the cast iron frying pans?

If your answer is a resounding YES! you are a leading warrior in the battle against food waste.

And if you saved that ham bone from your Easter dinner, you have a good start on a great soup.

INGREDIENTS:

1 lb. Great Northern Beans
Water
1 ham bone
Ham skin (if available)
1 or 2 cups chopped ham
1 or 2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 1/2 cups chopped carrots
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. white pepper
Salt and black pepper if necessary

PROCEDURE:

Rinse the beans the night before you make the soup, discarding any debris. When I was a kid, it was not uncommon to find a tiny stone or two in the dry beans. I haven’t found one in the last three or four years, but I always look. Put the beans into a large bowl and cover them with cold water.

Next morning, put the beans into a five-quart saucepan or Dutch oven and cover them with water. Bring the pan to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the beans for about forty-five minutes until they begin to get tender. Drain the beans and set them aside. Reserve the bean water.

Put the ham bone into the Dutch oven or a soup pot. Cover the ham bone with cold water and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the bone for at least an hour to make the broth.

While the ham bone is simmering, clean and chop the vegetables. I like to chop the carrots into quarter-inch rounds, the celery into half-inch pieces and the onion into a quarter-inch dice. Mince the garlic and chop the ham. The amount of ham you need depends on how much meat was on the ham bone. I chop it into a half to three-quarter-inch dice. Set the meat and vegetables aside in a bowl.

After simmering for an hour or so, the meat should be falling off the bone and most of the flavor from the bone and skin (if used) will be in the broth. Remove the ham bone and skin from the broth and set them aside to cool.

Add the chopped ham, chicken bouillon cube, vegetables, bay leaf, thyme, cloves and white pepper to the pot. If necessary add enough of the bean water to cover the vegetables by a half inch or so. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Remove the meat from the ham bone and add it to the soup. Mash a half cup of beans and stir them into the soup, then add the rest of the beans plus a little more bean water and continue simmering the soup until the beans are tender.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper if necessary.

Serve with a salad and good bread.

NOTES: If the ham bone and meat are from a very salty ham, you might want to use only one bouillon cube. Add a teaspoonful of instant bouillon if the the soup needs more salt when you first taste it. Stir and simmer the soup for a minute and taste it again before making the final adjustment.

Many people are becoming more interested in reducing food waste. The USDA has a good page about the Food Waste Challenge which sponsors programs to help businesses and organizations achieve a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has an excellent site on the Sustainable Management of Food.

One good example of a program designed to reduce food waste was started several years ago at Pine City, Minnesota. Named after a western Wisconsin lady known for her Christian generosity, Ruby’s Pantry now serves dozens of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin from distribution warehouses in southeastern Minnesota and central Wisconsin.

Trucks deliver food and other items to communities where volunteers work at a “Pop Up Pantry” once a month. Several years ago, a friend of ours active in First Lutheran Church inspired her church to sponsor a Ruby’s Pop-Up Pantry every third Thursday in New Richmond.

Everyone is invited to attend. Ruby’s Pantry is devoted to sharing food and other necessities to anyone who can use them. People of all income levels and diet preferences are welcome. The only request is that you not waste the items you receive. If there is something that you can not use, give it to a neighbor or a local food shelf.

That’s what Jerri and I do, and we think that it is a wonderful program.

Winter Memories and French Cabbage Soup

I still remember how exciting it was when Dad brought home the snowplow for the tractor. He had designed it himself and built it over a few evenings from scrap steel welded and bolted together in the garage where he worked. Attached to the John Deere Model LA tractor, it freed us from a chore we all dreaded. We still had to shovel the porches and paths to the woodshed, chicken coop and storage building, but that was nothing compared to shoveling the driveway and turnaround, especially when the town plow pushed a four-foot-high pile across the end of the driveway.

The arrival of the snowplow is just one of the many memories that I associate with winter when my sisters and I were growing up. We made snow angels, had snowball fights, created snow men and built long snow dragons that we could ride on. We went sledding and tobogganing on the hills along the Namekagon River. Oddly enough, I don’t remember ever being cold when we were out playing.

My mother knitted most of our winter accessories—warm stocking caps, mittens, gloves, scarves, sweaters and socks for all of us. She loved to knit and kept at it until the last few months before her death. I still have and use every winter a pair of heavy wool socks, cream-colored with robin’s egg blue tops, that keep my feet warm at thirty below zero. She gave them to me for Christmas at least twenty years ago. My deer hunting mittens with trigger fingers knitted into them date from shortly after Wisconsin recommended visible orange hunting clothing, so they are at least forty years old but still in excellent condition, if just a little faded.

Those gloves remind me of how concerned Mom was that Dad or I could get shot by someone mistaking us for a deer. She insisted that Dad use a large red bandanna for a handkerchief when he went deer hunting. I protested, so she bought me a pocket pack of red Kleenex. Waving a white handkerchief or tissue really was not a good idea when people with high-powered rifles were in the woods. That flash of white could be mistaken for a deer tail or ear.

Even with such precautions, sometimes bullets came too close. I was seventeen years old and hunting on the bottom of a deep valley north of Mosquito Brook. I was cautiously walking on a deer trail through a brushy ridge when there was a gunshot close to me. While I watched for the deer that I assumed I had jumped I heard a bullet zip past me and another gunshot. That deer must be close, I thought, until another bullet hit a small tree next to me.

I dropped behind an old stump, hollered and waved my hunting cap. The response was another bullet and gunshot. Peeking around the stump I saw a hunter taking aim again from his vantage point a couple hundred yards away and firing again. Another bullet thudded into something near me.

I braced my rifle against the stump, aimed about ten feet above the hunter and fired four shots as fast as I could. The shooter turned and ran. I started after him, losing distance as I climbed the hill. I saw a hunter off to my right and was relieved to see my Uncle Harold approaching. He told me that he had seen a hunter running toward the road who had been joined by another hunter. We walked to Mosquito Brook Road and found a half dozen beer cans where the men had parked their car.

Maybe I shouldn’t have shot towards the man, but then again if he had kept shooting, he might have hit me. Maybe I was lucky that he had had too many beers to shoot straight. The only thing I can say for certain is that it was another example of the luck that has kept me alive for nearly seventy-five years. And it does make a good true story.

Here are some possible titles to other true stories that young people today may find hard to believe. “Why Dad put a pan of hot coals under the car and a blanket over the hood,” “The winter I went skating on the rapids in the Namekagon River,” “Building fires on the lake,” “When my sister stuck her tongue to the mailbox” and “When the snow was so deep, Mom couldn’t get the doors open.” The last two are humorous stories of winter events, though not for my sister or mother.

Another true story could be titled “The many soups Mom made in winter,” for she made a lot of them. Bean soup, vegetable soup, chicken soup, tomato soup, oxtail soup and maybe even “Leftover Soup.” However, I am sure that she never made “French Cabbage Soup.” When she put cabbage in soup, she called it “Boiled Dinner,” and we had it often. Here is where you can find the recipe for my Mom’s Boiled Dinner.

I found the recipe for French Cabbage Soup in the Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook by Mary Bergin, which my sister Patsy loaned me. The recipe is from Mr. G’s Logan Creek Grille in Jacksonport, Wisconsin, and it makes a rich and satisfying meal on a cold winter day.

INGREDIENTS:

4 T butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/8 cup chopped onions
1 3/4 cups chopped carrots
1 1/2 cups cubed potatoes
Water to steam the vegetables
1 1/2 quarts chicken broth
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh cabbage
1/4 – 1/3 lb. cooked kielbasa or Polish sausage
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper

PROCEDURE:

Start by preparing the vegetables. Clean and chop the onion into a quarter-inch dice. Peel or scrub four or five carrots, cut off the stems and cut the carrots into quarter-inch slices. Peel and chop the potatoes into a half-inch dice. Put these vegetables into a large saucepan with about a half cup of water and bring the pan to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and steam the vegetables until they are tender but not soft. Drain them and set the pan aside.

Wash a small head of cabbage (five or six inches in diameter) and remove any damaged leaves. Cut half of the head into quarters, then cut each quarter into half inch slices. You should have about one and one-half cups of cabbage, but a little more is okay.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan or skillet. Blend in the flour and cook it for a minute or a minute and a half over moderate heat to make a thick roux. Using a wooden spoon, stir the flour mixture continuously to make sure that it doesn’t brown or burn. Set the roux aside.

While the vegetables are cooking, cut the sausage into slices an eighth to a quarter of an inch thick and bring the chicken broth to a boil in a soup pot or Dutch oven. Set the sausage aside.

Add the cabbage, salt and pepper to the broth and cook for two minutes.

Blend in the roux and cook until the soup has thickened. Stir in the vegetables and sausage. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook for a minute.

Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

NOTES: This is a soup to serve to people who say they are not fond of cabbage. If you don’t tell them, they may not know that they are eating a cabbage soup.

The original recipe makes about a gallon of soup, but I have cut it in half to produce eight generous servings. If you want a thinner soup or an extra serving you can add a little more broth.

Be careful not to overcook the vegetables.

Like most soups, this one tastes even better on the second day.