Saturday, November 24, 2007

Southern (California) Ham & Beans

A traditional Thanksgiving (at least in my house) includes two main dishes: Turkey and a spiral cut, honey glazed ham (somewhere around here I have a great recipe for apricot glaze - but that's a recipe for another blog.).

After the inevitable turkey and ham sandwiches, you're left with a nice big ham hock, covered with plenty of meat, but no single piece large enough to justify slapping it between two pieces of bread.

So as not to waste all that yummy goodness, we'll save that hock; sometimes wrapping it up and freezing it until we want to use it later, but more often I'll make a big pot of my SoCal style ham and beans. Even if you're still full after the Thanksgiving gorging, these beans can easily be packaged up in nice dinner sized packages and frozen until you want them later for an easy to fix, and filling, side dish or even main course. Having lived in Southern California most of my life, I've learned that there's very few things that can't be heated up and slapped in to a flour tortilla and made delicious with enough Tapatío. These beans fall into that category.

This is also a crock pot recipe, meaning that you can put it together in the morning and let it simmer all day with only minimal attention until it's time to eat. In fact, you have to - I'm big on easy and most crock pot recipes are, at a minimum, easy. For this you're going to need a medium-to-large slow cooker: I've got two, one big enough to roast a pig and a more practical four-quart. I use the smaller one for most everything.

Your main ingredients are pinto beans and a left-over ham hock. Don't buy a ham-hock from the store and expect to get a whole lot of meat from it. The expert butchers who work those over are skilled at taking all the meat off, right down to the bone. So, while you'll get the flavor, you won't get a lot of the meat that makes this filling enough to use as a main course. And don't worry if your thanksgiving left over ham hock doesn't look like it has a lot on it: there's more than you can see just waiting to be liberated from it's bony prison.

On to the recipe! It's best if you start this first thing in the morning:

  • Place your ham hock in the slow cooker and turn on to high simmer.
  • Add two cups of pinto beans.
  • Add four cups water

A word about beans: always check these thoroughly for "bad" beans and rocks. The beans you get in the store are thoroughly sifted (I hope) but there always seems to be a few rocks and just plain ugly beans that sneak though the process. I always measure my beans out onto a plate and shuffle through them until I'm confident I've got all the tooth-crunching surprises out of the lot. As I inspect the beans, I put them into a colendar for rinsing. Some people will steep these over night, but, just personally, I find this leaves the beans too "mushy" for my taste. I like a little "chewiness" but not too much. Inspecting, rinsing, and simmering all day gives me what I consider just the right texture.

  • Mince in four lobes of garlic. (five-sixths of my family is Italian. Senza l'aglio, non è solo lo stesso!)
  • Add a large brown onion
  • Cut-up a red bell pepper and a yellow bell pepper (not too fine). Rinse to remove any seeds and add to mix.
Just FYI, green bell peppers are just unripened red, yellow, etc., bells. They tend to be a little less sweet and a little hotter that the fully ripened fruit. I also find the red bell peppers to be sweeter than the yellow.

  • Add two cans of stewed tomatoes.
Depending on what I'm planning for these beans I'll sometimes get the Italian-style (flavored with onions, sweet peppers, garlic, oregano, olive oil and sugar) or the Mexican-styled stewed tomatoes (flavored with onions, celery, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and Tapatío.) Just ordinary stewed tomatoes work just fine, but lack the spicier flavor SoCal natives enjoy.

  • Let simmer all day long.

After it's had time to steep, say four or five hours later, I'll add a table spoon of corn starch to thicken it up. And that's all there is to it. Also, just a teaspoon of baking soda will make the beans creamier and less gassy - but what's the sport in that?!!

Following this recipe gives you a hearty, slightly spicy, concoction that's good as a burrito, a side dish or just a bowl-full as a main course. My wife and I enjoy the many vegetables in it and my kids will smother it with shredded cheese and make a meal out of it.

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