A soup fit for a Senator
Spring might be in the air, but it’s clearly not time to put away the warm jackets, at least not by my standards. I’ve been known to frown, smirk, and even complain about the cold, but I will say the silver lining to late Autumn, Winter, and early Spring is how it’s the ideal time for hot bowls of homemade soup.
This past winter had me on a massive soup kick, forgoing the cans for homemade, reliving some memories of my childhood. Growing up, my father would fill the house with the smells of homemade soup, mainly learned in his years of restaurant work. He would mostly make chicken soups and a lentil soup which I think was inspired by the Progresso brand of that very soup.
At one point, my father was enjoying his lentil soup so much that he made it for several weeks in a row, which weighed hard on the rest of us. Granted it was a good soup, but one can only eat so much. After asking for “something different”, he cooked up a pot of what he called Navy Bean Soup, and it was love at first spoon.
The soup starts with a ham or chicken-based broth flavored with onions and any seasonings the cook may choose. Some vegetables might be added if one desires, but the main necessity to this soup are the navy beans. They’re small, dry, white beans popular in both the US and the UK, given their name due to how much they were fed to sailors in the 19th century. The beans had a good shelf life and would not lose their nutrients, even when canned.
Navy Bean Soup is also known in some circles as Senate Bean Soup, primarily due to it being a mainstay in the US Senate’s dining hall for over a century. There is no clear story as to how the soup came to the Senate, or why it remained as a daily offering. However, you can find theories and even the official recipe on their website.
Despite the posting on Senate.gov, there isn’t really an “official” recipe for Navy Bean Soup. In my own research, I’ve found many variations which helped me to craft my own. Even my father’s version is different from mine, but that’s the beauty of this soup in that you can variate it to your own personal taste.
Hungry? Let’s make a pot...
Navy Bean Soup
- 3 cups of dried navy beans, rinsed and sorted
- 1 can (14.5 oz) of diced tomatoes with liquid
- 2 small yellow onions, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 carrots, diced
- 1 pound of cooked ham, cubed
- 2 cups of chicken broth
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh or dried parsley (for finishing)
- Place the beans into a large stock pot and cover with at least two inches of water.
- Set the pot on the stove over high heat until the water starts to boil.
- Lower the heat and allow the beans to simmer for five minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and let the beans soak for an hour.
- Drain the beans of the water.
- Add in the tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, ham, broth, and bay leaves.
- Fill the pot with enough water to leave 2-3 inches of liquid above the mixture.
- Place the pot back on the stove and bring the soup to a boil.
- Lower the heat and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Season with salt and pepper to your taste before finishing.
The whole process with the beans is a quicker way to soften them for cooking. Usually you would soak dried beans for 4-8 hours, but boiling them a bit speeds up the process. Plus if this soup is going to sit in the refrigerator, the beans will stay more solid as opposed to turning to mush by not fully softening them.
The reason why you season with salt and pepper at the end is because the ham might add more saltiness as it cooks. Thus waiting until the soup is done will allow you to more accurately tweak the final flavor.
You can variate this one all over. I've seen some add potatoes, other vegetables, or even no vegetables beyond the onion. My father usually doesn't put ham into his soup, which is ideal if you want to go vegetaran. You could use vegetable broth if you want to go fully vegan.
My soup is usually more on the brothy side with the beans retaining their shape. If you prefer a thicker, more dense soup, then take some of the beans out at the end, purée them in a food processor, and then stir the purée back into the soup as a thickening agent. You could also simmer the soup for an additional hour to break the beans down more.
Healthy It Up
You can keep the fat content low by using a lean ham or a turkey ham. I also like to use a low sodium broth.
Garnish your soup with parsley before serving. It just adds a little kick to the flavor and a little green color to the mixture.