Karl’s Ham and Beans for a Crowd

Jan, my wife, is an anthropologist at SJSU. When she can, she arranges for her students to do “real world” projects for their assignments. This semester, she will be and her students will be part of a team, organized by NUMU Los Gatos, interviewing relocated American Indians who live in the South Bay—having moved to the city from various reservations in the 1950s, ‘60s, and 70s—if they are not recorded now their stories will soon be lost to history.

Karl’s Ham and Beans for a Crowd

Karl’s Ham and Beans for a Crowd

Note: This group prefers to be called American Indians, not Native Americans. As was explained to my wife, all of the governmental laws and protections for Indian Americans are written in those terms. If they started to call themselves something else they might forget—or lose—rights and protections that pertain to being an “American Indian.”

As a start to this project, the museum is hosting a pot luck to introduce the students and to bring the friends of the community together. Jan, of course, volunteered me to cook for the potluck—once in a while she even asks me before she commits to making the dishes. This time it was fairly easy, two dishes to feed thirty people—that beats the “light lunch” for  200 she had me make one year—although I do love a challenge.

The American Indians who were relocated to this area are from tribes all over America. Favoring the cuisine of one tribe over another would not be appropriate. Jan decided that the best dishes in this situation were a pot of ham & beans and a large salad.

I used my last ham bone a few weeks ago, so I could not make my usual ham broth for this pot of beans. I had the further problem of transporting the beans, so that they would still be warm enough to eat without reheating. I would have to be creative to coax maximum flavor for this dish, so that it would still be tasty when it was served lukewarm.

After Dinner Note: Jan said that they really liked this dish. She saw people going back for thirds.

Karl’s Ham and Beans for a Crowd


2 lb. Great Northern beans (about 4 cups)
1 ½ Tbs. Kosher salt

2-3 Tbs. bacon grease (or olive oil)
1 lb. ham, ½ inch dice
2 medium onions, separate uses
6 stalks celery, separate uses
½ tsp. Kosher salt

4 medium carrots, separate uses
10 cloves garlic, minced

46 oz. low sodium chicken broth
2 tsp. marjoram
½ tsp. black pepper

2 Tbs. fresh celery leaves, minced


1. At least four hours before dinner, sort and rinse your beans.

Tip: Let the beans sit submerged in water for two minutes and gently scrub them with your hands. You are not trying to break the hulls, just to free any dirt sticking to them. Rinse the beans a second time, to make sure they are clean.

2. Put the beans in a large pot, cover them with at least two inches of water, and add the salt.

Tip: The four hour timing above is for the “quick soak method,” boiling the beans for two minutes and then letting them sit for an hour in the cooling water/stock. For the “slow soak method,” place the beans in cold water and salt and soak them overnight—at least eight hours.

Note: There is a debate about whether to salt or not salt the bean soaking water. The sodium in the salt replaces some of the calcium in the bean skins making them more tender, However it also makes it more likely that the skins will burst entirely leaving you with a pot of bean paste if your heat is too high—a rapid boil makes the beans bounce around in the pot and breaks the skins open. When I have a salty ham broth I soak the beans in that, because it is more forgiving temperature-wise and I usually do not like to lose the skins nutrients when I pour off the soaking liquid.  This time, I decided to try using the heavily salted water and a very low temperature, slow cooking method.

3. Dice one of the onions finely and the other onion coarsely, keep them separate.

Tip: You will be adding the finely chopped vegetables to the pot at the beginning of the cooking time. These vegetables will break down into the sauce.  You will add the coarsely chopped vegetables near the end of the cooking, so that you will have some nicely al dente vegetables mixed into the beans.

4. Dice three of the stocks of celery finely and the other two coarsely, keep them separate.

Tip: Reserve the celery leaves in a bowl of cool water to keep them fresh.

5. Grate two of the carrots and chop the others coarsely, keep them separate.

6. Three hours before dinner, melt the bacon grease in a large Dutch oven, over high heat.

Note: When I cook just for Jan, I usually limit the amount of fat in my dishes. For this group, I decided that the boost in flavor was worth the “less healthy” option, especially since I did not have a homemade ham broth available.

7. Once the grease is hot, brown the diced ham well.

Tip: The point here is not to overcook the ham, but to get some good fond developed on the bottom of the pot to boost the ham flavors with the Millard reaction.

8. Transfer the ham to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate the ham for later use.

Tip: You will be returning the ham to the pot when the beans are done, but that will not be for some time.

9. Reduce the heat to medium high and add the finely diced onions and celery to the pot.

10. Sprinkle the vegetables with half a teaspoon of salt and use the moisture released by the vegetables to deglaze the pot.

Tip: Adding the salt at this point helps release the moisture from the vegetables and speeds up browning. The salt also breaks down the vegetable cell walls to make them more tender.

11. Add the grated carrots to the pot and continue cooking until the vegetables are well browned, 5-8 minutes.

12. Pull the vegetables to the side of the pot and add the garlic to the hole in the center.

13. Sauté the garlic for one minute, until fragrant, and then mix in the rest of the vegetables.

14. Add the chicken broth, marjoram, and pepper to the pot.

Tip: Scrape the pot well, to make sure that there is no fond still sticking to the bottom that might burn and ruin your beans.

15. Drain and rinse the beans well.

16. Add the beans to the pot and check the liquid level.

Tip: The broth should just cover the beans. If not add a bit of water to cover.

17. Bring the pot to a boil, cover, and transfer the pot to a 275º F oven.

Tip: You can do this on the stove top, but I always prefer to put my pot in a low oven. The heat is more even and there is less chance of scorching the beans on the bottom. Burnt beans bad!

18. Simmer the beans for 1½ hours, until they are almost tender.

Tip: Stir the beans once or twice during the cooking to make sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.

19. Stir in the remaining, onions, celery, and carrots.

20. Crush about a ¼-½ cup of beans against the side of the pot and stir them into the soup.

21. Continue cooking, uncovered in the oven, until the beans are completely tender and the sauce has thickened, about another half hour.

Tip: Depending on how “dry” you want your beans, you may need to crush some more beans to further thicken you sauce.

22. Add the reserved meat and check the seasoning, add more pepper as needed.

Tip: The beans should not need more salt, but add more if you wish.

23. Continue to simmer the beans for 5-10 more minutes, to reheat the meat.

24. Serve, garnished with finely chopped celery leaves, with salad on the side.

Note: I always serve the beans in the heavy cast iron Dutch oven. I think it makes for a good, if rustic, presentation.


Filed under Beans, Main Dishes, Pork

2 responses to “Karl’s Ham and Beans for a Crowd

  1. Donna Chlimon

    Beans are one of my favorites, I’ll keep this recipe in mind thanks!

  2. Pingback: Karl’s Asian Salad for a Crowd | Jabberwocky Stew

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