Boneheads and ham bones.

I had a bowl of ham bone soup this morning as I wondered about what to blog next. “Ice cream might be interesting,” I thought, as I scooped up some tender, pink ham that had fallen off the bone. “Maybe I could try making injera for the first time.” A big mouthful of hickory smoke-infused beans warmed my belly. “Or I can finally get around to using that Chinese white fungus.” My spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl for the last bits of pepper-speckled goodness. I sighed my contented post-Christmas ham bone soup sigh and washed the dishes.

Ham bone soupThree hours later I hit my proverbial forehead with my proverbial knuckles and let out a proverbial “D’oh!” Fortunately I had soup left. I’m sorry it looks a little green. Legume soups don’t photograph well, as you know if you’ve ever seen Poltergeist (the movie, not a real poltergeist, although I bet the typical poltergeist diet isn’t photogenic either).

My father started the ham bone soup tradition after we dined on a magnificent smoked ham that redefined the watery hams we’d known until then. Since then we have always bought the same ham for Christmas, and we have always made the same ham bone soup. Well, almost the same. The first soups were so thick that they ate like porridge. My parents could never seem to nail the bean to water ratio, and the soup would disintegrate into a thick mass that stuck to the spoon if you held it upside down. We still loved it. When I took over the holiday cooking, the soups thinned a bit, but I kept much of the thickness out of sentiment.

This year I decided to dump sentiment and make a decent soup that you can’t eat with a fork. It’s the best version yet. The 2006 soup contains navy beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, split green peas, and regular brown lentils. The benefit of mixing legumes is that the large beans stay whole but the smaller legumes melt into the soup and give you a rich texture without the bother of pureeing scalding soup. Just about any combination of legumes will work except maybe kidney beans which take a long cooking time that might melt the other legumes too much. You can, of course, use just one kind of legume such as the traditional split pea. Like most soups, this soup reheats well and tastes just as good, if not better, days after it’s made.


· 1 very meaty ham bone from a whole or half ham, preferably smoked
· 8 cups water
· 1/2 pound assorted dried beans, soaked overnight
· 1/2 pound assorted quick-cooking legumes such as split peas and lentils
· 1 bay leaf
· 1 large onion, diced
· 2-3 large carrots, sliced into coins
· Salt and black pepper

1) In a large pot, bring ham bone to a boil in 8 cups of water over high heat. Lower heat, cover the pot, and simmer the bone for at least two hours.

2) Add the drained beans, legumes, and bay leaf to the water. Cover the pot and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally.

3) Add the onions and the carrots, and continue simmering the soup until the beans are tender, anywhere from half an hour to an hour more. Add some water if the soup is too thick for your taste.

4) Season to taste with salt and copious amounts of fresh ground black pepper.

Crimson coins: shredded beef and scallion soup.

Once upon a time, a poor widow answered a knock on her cottage door and found a wanderer begging for a bite to eat. Despite having little food left for herself, she scraped up what was left in her pantry and made a soup with the last of her butter. The wanderer, only pretending to be destitute, was so touched by the woman’s generosity that he awarded her one gold coin for every speck of butter floating on the surface of the soup. The widow received so much gold that she lived happily ever after.¹

I must have been a foodie even when I was young, because the vision of a layer of tiny golden dots on soup enchanted me. No wonder then that one of my favorite comfort foods is yookgaejang—shredded beef, scallion, and fiddlehead soup—a soup instantly recognizable by its distinctive smattering of red dots floating on a clear, beefy broth. The color comes kochu karu, a coarse Korean chili powder, which stains the floating beef fat and roasted sesame oil bright red. It’s easy to make, amazingly flavorful for so few ingredients, and warmly filling with bowl of sticky white rice. Koreans often eat it in the summer to induce sweating and cooling, but it’s a fine cold-weather soup too.


A friend brought us a big pot of yookgaejang yesterday. It had been such a long time since I’d tasted it that her gift gave me not just sustenance but memories, comfort, and persistent sniffles (it’s a spicy soup). I’d post a recipe, but I have a confession to make: I rarely cook Korean. Food from other countries gets more attention than the cuisine of my own heritage. It’s a matter of efficiency. When people give you all the Korean food you want, you might as well make curry, paella, and pound cake. I last made yookgaejang ten years ago and can’t remember the exact proportions. But I do remember that it was easy.

yookgaejang2If you’re hankering to try it (and I hope you hanker), there are many recipes online that look about right. Whichever one you try, I would make the following suggestions. First, don’t brown the beef. While I always brown beef in western soups, browning muddies an Asian soup and makes it, well, unAsian. Use a whole cut of meat, not sliced, so that you can shred it after it’s cooked to get that distinct look and beefy chew. Chewy texture is part of the soup’s appeal, so the meat does not need to be cooked for hours to tenderize it. Try to find kosari if you can. The brown dried or water-packed fiddlehead ferns and attached stems add a slippery chewy texture that complements the beef well. Don’t skimp on the kochu karu, make sure to add a glug of roasted sesame oil, and add sufficient salt to taste. If you have time, a gelatinous stock made from unbrowned beef bones will make a truly amazing soup with rich mouthfeel. I prefer to thinly bias-cut my scallions and add them at the last minute, but the version pictured here with thick cooked scallions is common too. It’s a hard soup to screw up.

By the way, there’s a second part to that story. A wicked rich girl in town heard about the widow’s gold and hunted down the wanderer. She dragged him to her kitchen and made him a soup into which she dumped all the butter she had. Then she demanded her fortune. The wanderer, amused, handed her one gold coin. She had put so much butter in the soup that it floated in one big yellow blob.

The moral of the story should be obvious. Don’t use a fatty cut of beef. Stick to a lean, long-grained cut like flank. Chuck is a more economical choice, but make sure to trim as much fat off the beef as possible and skim the fat off the broth well before adding the koch’u karu.

Like most soups, this one reheats well. Grab a box of tissues, don’t wear white, and slurp away.


¹ If anyone knows the title of this story, please let me know; I couldn’t find it.


bullet Link du jour
Koreans aren’t the only people who eat hot soup in summer to cool down. Melissa notes that Russians and Jamaicans do it too . . . and it works! Read Soup Days of Summer from the wonderful Traveler’s Lunchbox.