Senate Bean Soup: Classic comfort food, comfortingly not updated

by Terry B on October 3, 2012

Served daily in the United States Senate Dining Room since the early 1900s, Senate Bean Soup is a soul satisfying, stubbornly old school dish. Recipe below.

Blue Kitchen Senate Bean Soup

Special Collector’s Issue is a term often used—and abused—by magazine marketers to boost newsstand sales. The October issue of Saveur magazine, however, lives up to the hype.

As the cover promises, it contains 101 classic recipes—and not much else. No restaurant showcases, no travel features, no chef profiles or kitchen gadget reviews. Just a short piece up front by the editor-in-chief celebrating Saveur’s 150th issue and a classic food-related photo of Lucille Ball on the last page, with the aforementioned recipes sandwiched in between.

Not that I mind all those other things. I’m fascinated by most things food related. But I love that this 150th “Special Collector’s Issue” is all about the food. And I particularly love the magazine’s wonderfully inclusive view of classic recipes. Hoary culinary warhorses like Caesar Salad and New England Clam Chowder share space with Canh Chua Cá, a Vietnamese sour fish soup, and Djaj Mqualli, a Moroccan tagine of chicken, olives and lemon. A single page in the magazine features Pepper Pot, a Philadelphia staple with Caribbean roots; Chile Verde, the lively New Mexican pork shoulder and tomatillo stew; and the hearty Polish pork and sauerkraut stew, Bigos.

To me, it reflects the way the United States, more than any other country, has embraced the food and kitchen culture and traditions of the world. So admittedly, it’s more than a little ironic that the first recipe of the 101 I chose to explore was No. 16, the decidedly American, stubbornly old-fashioned Senate Bean Soup (on the same page, I might add, with Sambar, a South Indian onion stew that also sounds remarkable).

As with most classic recipes, there are countless versions out there. Even the official United States Senate website has two takes on it, to match the two most popular stories of which senator requested the bean soup be added to the dining room’s menu. The recipe attributed to Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho contains mashed potatoes (I know you’re as surprised as I am). Minnesota Senator Knute Nelson’s recipe does not. Whoever started the tradition, bean soup has been served daily in the Senate Dining Room since about 1903.

Senate bean soup is not a complex soup. It is the homey, homely, sturdy soup of our childhood, cooked for hours on a wintry day, steaming kitchen windows and filling the house with the smoky fragrance of ham hocks. Frommer’s goes so far as to say, “The Senate Bean Soup may be famous, but it’s tasteless goo.” I disagree. This is elemental comfort food that speaks to something written deep in our genetic code.

The first recipe on the Senate site is among the most stripped down, using only beans, ham hocks, butter, an onion, salt, pepper and water (the Saveur recipe sticks with this basic version too). Some include mashed potatoes (and some even substitute instant mashed potato flakes). Others get overly busy, I think, with multiple herbs and spices and even wine.

I stayed closer to tradition, adding only some aromatics—carrots, celery and garlic—and bay leaves. I didn’t want to do a modern homage to the soup. I wanted to keep it steadfastly old school.

It starts with the beans. Navy beans, to be exact. You can substitute great northern beans, but the Senate kitchen uses navy beans. More often than not, we use canned beans at Blue Kitchen. They’re quick and convenient and, for most recipes, work just fine. This recipe requires dried beans. The long cooking time they demand lets the ham hock’s smoky flavor permeate everything. Dried beans also generally require soaking to soften them up before cooking. You can soak the beans overnight, the time honored approach that, unfortunately for me, requires planning ahead. I used a quick soaking method I’ll describe in the Kitchen Notes that had the beans ready to cook in little more than an hour.

Even though the cooking time is long—two-and-a-half to three hours, give or take—it’s something that can go on mostly unattended. On a recent Saturday, I started soaking the beans in the afternoon. By early evening, we were sitting down to a hearty supper.

Senate Bean Soup
Serves 4

1 pound dried navy beans, soaked (see Kitchen Notes)
1 smoked ham hock, about 3/4 pound (see Kitchen Notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
freshly ground black pepper
salt (maybe)

Combine beans, ham hock, garlic, 8 cups of water and bay leaves in a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 1-1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add onion, carrots and celery and toss to coat with butter. Sweat aromatics until just softening, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. (A note on chopping and dicing these vegetables: Navy beans are small. Cut the vegetables to match that scale—no big carrot coins or chunks of celery.)

Transfer the ham hock to a shallow bowl and let it cool slightly. Transfer a ladleful of the beans to a small bowl, along with a little of the liquid. Using a hand masher or a fork, mash the beans thoroughly and return to the pot. Do this with two more ladlesful of beans. This will thicken the liquid a bit. I did this instead of adding mashed potatoes, not wanting to introduce their starchy flavor to the mix. Stir in the vegetable mix and season generously with pepper. Do NOT add salt at this time.

When the ham hock is cooled enough to handle, remove the skin, fat and bones and chop the meat into small pieces. Again, remember the scale of the navy beans. Return the meat to the pot and simmer uncovered for another 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until beans are completely tender and the liquid has reduced somewhat, creating a slightly thick broth.

Taste carefully and add salt only if needed. The ham hock will add plenty of salt, so you may not need any. I didn’t. Discard the bay leaves. Ladle soup into  bowls, giving the pot a good stir with the ladle each time—the beans, vegetables and meat tend to settle to the bottom, and this will give each serving a good, hearty mix of everything. Serve with a crusty bread, rolls or cornbread.

Kitchen Notes

Soaking beans, slow and fast. Whichever method you choose, pick through the beans first to remove any pebbles and shriveled looking beans and then give them a quick rinse.

  • Slow: Soaking beans overnight is simplicity itself. Just place them in a large pot or bowl and cover with water by at least three inches. Soak them overnight, drain and rinse. They are now ready to cook.
  • Fast: Place picked over and rinsed beans in a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Cover with cold tap water by at least three inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 2 minutes. Turn off heat, cover pot and let beans soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse. They’re now ready to cook.

Ham hocks. Strictly smoked, please. The smokiness adds immeasurably to the flavor of the soup. Ham hocks are one of those nose-to-tail ingredients that have been around since long before that term was invented. You’ll find them in most supermarkets. We got beautiful smoked ham hocks from our favorite local (and locavore) butcher shop, The Butcher & Larder. I bought two (I’ve wrapped and frozen one for further adventures later this year). When I unwrapped the butcher paper package in our kitchen, the whole apartment filled with the hocks’ smoky aroma. I was immediately transported back to a relative’s kitchen somewhere in the country long ago.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy October 3, 2012 at 2:29 am

We were visiting the Senate Buildings while on vacation recently and had a cup of this very soup with our lunches. We had come in from a rainstorm that day and it definitely was our favorite part of the meal. I’ve been making it at home for years based off a recipe I got off a Senate website many years ago. It looks to be the same as what is in this post. It is not the most “exciting” soup in the world, but it is hearty and warming. I always make at least two batches of this soup in the fall and winter for my family. Everyone loves it.

The Rowdy Chowgirl October 3, 2012 at 2:37 am

It’s just the right time of year to start thinking about hearty bean soup again. Of course, it’s always the right time of year for smoky ham hocks!

Terry B October 3, 2012 at 3:35 am

Wendy, we love visiting Washington, DC! And you’re right, this isn’t the most exciting soup in the world (but then, neither is Julia’s potage parmentier). Most often, though, the role of soup is not to be exciting, but to be comforting. This soup is that in spades.

Hi, Rowdy! This was my first time cooking with ham hocks, and I totally agree.

Fork and Whisk October 3, 2012 at 3:47 am

Fall is here, definitely time for soup.

randi October 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Mmmm this is my idea of comfort food. I could eat soup every day.
For those who don’t eat pork or can’t find ham hocks, some of the larger grocery stores sell smoked turkey legs which work nicely. Still there’s nothing like a ham hock.

Terry B October 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Fork and Whisk, fall has hit Chicago big time. Right now outside my office window, there’s a misty, spitty fog. Perfect soup weather.

Randi, thanks for the smoked turkey leg idea. That’s a great substitute for those who don’t eat pork.

kitchenriffs October 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I’ve seen a lot of recipe for the “authentic” Senate Bean Soup, but yours is pretty close to what I make. I add diced potatoes for the last 30 minutes or so, just because. I’ve not really noticed any difference between the overnight soak and the quick soak method of re-hydrating dried beans. If I think about it I always do the overnight method because it’s so easy; but usually I don’t think about it, so I end up doing the quick method. BTW, those stick blenders are great for doing a quick blend in soups (but make sure you get one with a stainless shaft; the plastic ones can crack in hot liquid). Five or so seconds blending has about the same effect as hand mashing, in my experience.

Terry B October 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Kitchenriffs—you’re right, an immersion blender is a convenient way to purée enough of the beans to thicken the sauce. Just make sure to remove the bay leaves first, or you could have bay leaf shards in your soup.

Susie October 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm

This is what I requested for my birthday dinner throughout my childhood.

Mimi/Mary Johns October 4, 2012 at 12:08 am

You must be reading my mind. I was carving something like this earlier today.

Now that I’m self employed, I will find time to make this, or something similar for a cold winter day.

jeri October 4, 2012 at 1:13 am

Who knew I’d been making a famous soup all these years. I’ve also used smoked turkey wings or legs or smoked pork neck bones when I couldn’t find the hocks. They all work well. Also, if you don’t feel like pulling out the heavy equipment, a few mashes with an old fashioned potato masher will do the trick.

Terry B October 4, 2012 at 3:25 am

Susie, that is so great. Similarly, the birthday cake I request every year is not a cake, but simple pumpkin pie.

Mimi, everyone seems to be in comforting soup mode these days, a surer sign of autumn than the calendar.

Jeri, an old fashioned potato masher was precisely what I used, in keeping with the soup’s history and my history with it. My grandmother didn’t have an immersion blender, after all. That said, I do love my immersion blender when I use it.

angelawd October 23, 2012 at 7:26 pm

This looks fabulous! I’m glad I found the recipe early enough today to make it tonight. It’s a chilly, rainy day in Chicagoland – perfect for soup.

By the way, if you soak beans overnight with a pinch of baking soda, then dump the water and rinse well before cooking, it gets rid of much of the indigestible sugars that cause gassiness. That’s always a plus!

Terry B October 23, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I hope you like it, angelawd! And now that you mention the baking soda trick, I remember my mom doing that. Good tip!

Kristin February 18, 2013 at 12:55 am

This was also my first ham hock endeavor – I was afraid they wouldn’t carry it at my grocery store…but had them, except I had to buy a package of 4 (now I need to figure out what else to make with them!)
The soup wasn’t the most exciting, but was comforting and lasted for 2 meals plus some extra in the freezer. My husband commented there wasn’t enough ham in there – so the second night I added some kielbasa which ended up being quite yummy!
Thanks for the recipe!

Terry B February 18, 2013 at 2:29 am

Kristin, if you’re looking for another recipe to use ham hocks, try my Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks. I think you’ll find it a little livelier than the Senate Bean Soup. And I like the idea of adding kielbasa to this soup!

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