I grew up eating a lot of Ham and Bean Soup. It was always served with a big pan of cornbread. It's pure comfort food for me - one that takes me back to my childhood and one that I love still to this day. This recipe is an excellent one to make to use up leftover holiday ham. (A leftover ham bone can be used, too. See note at bottom of post.)
I tend to prepare this the way that my Kentucky-born Grandmother did. I start with just basic ingredients, then taste and "doctor" as needed towards the end of cooking time. (Salt should only be added once the soup is about done - if needed - since you never know how salty your ham is.) The recipe requires only a short list of ingredients, but the amounts may vary depending on your preference. For example, I like a strong vinegar taste in my bean soup, but you may prefer only a faint vinegar taste.
Yields 6 servings.
1 package (16 oz.) dried white Northern beans
Ham, diced (a couple of cups worth once diced)
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 bay leaf
Soak beans in cold water in a large bowl or pot overnight. Water level should be a couple of inches above the level of the dry beans when soaking begins. Once soaked, drain off all water. Sort beans as needed.
Add beans, ham, onion and bouillon cube to a large stock or soup pot set to medium heat. Add enough fresh water to cover beans by an inch or two. Drop in the bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low.
(Season with a good deal of black pepper and around a few tablespoons of white vinegar at this point. Don't add salt until towards the end of cooking once you can determine how much is needed. The amount of salt required will vary based on how much saltiness the ham adds to the beans and the saltiness of your bouillon cube.)
Lid and cook for around two hours, then continue to cook uncovered for about 30 additional minutes - stirring occasionally throughout the cooking process. (Cooking time may vary between 2 - 3 hours. When some of the beans begin to slightly break apart and the soup starts to become creamy, you'll know it's about done.) If soup becomes too thick, add in a little more hot water. As the beans cook and as you stir them, the soup will thicken up nicely.
Once beans are tender and soup is thickened, remove bay leaf. Taste and add salt if needed. Add more pepper and/or vinegar to taste before serving.
Keep over warm heat until ready to serve.
NOTE: A leftover ham bone can be used for this recipe. Simply remove ham bone toward the end of cooking, then pull or cut off any ham on the bone that you want to add back into the soup.
11/15/16: Updated photos and made clarifications to the post.