Long and slowly cooked ham hock and butter bean stew, a marvellously comforting winter warmer of a dish with plenty of flavour.
Yorkshire influence, Polish roots
Inspiration for this recipe came from lunch I had in a lovely Yorkshire town of Skipton. At Elsworth Kitchen, a lively all-day food serving place (my favourite kind), I was served a big bowl of Farmhouse Black Pudding, Ham Hock, Smoked Beans, with a Poached Egg and Bourbon Glaze, all for eight pounds fifty.
It was hearty, warming and immensely satisfying, especially on a cold and crisp winter’s day. Even the dude on the next table loudly chefsplaining what ham hock was to his forbearing date couldn’t diminish the joy of my food. It was thick! stodgy! filling! and completely wonderful!
It also brought back memories of a somewhat forgotten dish they have in Poland, butter beans Breton style. The ‘Breton’ part of that dish has as little connection with Brittany as Danish pastries have with Denmark, French toast with France or Hawaiian pizza with Honolulu.
I have no idea whence the name, but the dish is mighty good: enormous butter beans cooked in tomatoey, garlicky sauce with chopped up bacon and sausage.
Out of the two, a new recipe has been developed and it is my particularly favourite way of creating dishes: something old, something new, great flavours and fond memories to go together.
What is ham hock?
So what was the dude at Elsworth Kitchen on about?
I think he was so fascinated by that particular piece of pork because it is not very common, or else better known as gammon hock or knuckle. Which is a bit unfair on a pig. Everybody knows lamb shank – why not its piggy counterpart?
It could be because cured and sometimes smoked pork is commonly called ‘gammon’ in the UK. I know, the only country that has pork encrypted!
That gammon becomes ham all right but no sooner than when it’s cooked. Why complicate life and food so much? Beats me.
Ham hock (or gammon hock, or knuckle) is the chunk of pork on the bone, the part of a pig between the bum and the trotter, cured and oftentimes smoked.
Quite fatty and a little gristly closest to the bone, it’s nevertheless enormously good value and ultra-tasty when properly prepared.
When used as a base for a pea or lentil soup, it’s divine. When boiled then roasted, it makes a fabulous and fabulously cheap dish of smoked, pulled pork. Aka gammon. Aka ham.
And when cooked forever with dried beans, both becoming gradually tenderer and tastier, it makes the absolutely best in the comfort foods department.
Don’t be afraid of dried beans
Dried beans, dried chickpeas and lentils admittedly take a while to cook and some need soaking overnight. But the only hard part in that is to remember to place them in a pan with cold water on an evening.
Why do we always reach for tins that often have a lot of added salt and sugar, instead of simmering the pulses on the hob?
And those who own a slow cooker have totally no excuse.
In this instance using butter beans from a tin or jar would obliterate the dish. Long cooking of the beans and hock creates the dish and the flavours. There are no possible shortcuts here, I’m sorry to say, unlike with a lot of chickpea dishes for instance.
How to cook beans and hock?
The beans soak ahead overnight, as mentioned.
You can give the meat a head start in cooking if you want to have it absolutely meltingly tender, but over the two hours that the beans will need, it will cook sufficiently in my view.
When the beans are tender, which is when their skin peels off gently when lifted from hot water, you can remove the ham hock and let it cool off a little before discarding the skin, some fat and all the gristle, and chopping the clean meat into chunks.
The final dish
The beans and the hock now need lots of aromatics: onions, garlic, herbs, spices and seasoning, all sweated in the final casserole or sauté pan.
To that we’ll return the chopped ham hock and drained beans with some of the cooking liquid, reserving the rest to add as needed.
The end cooking stage should take an hour or longer, depending how soft, mushy and amalgamated you’ll like your beans and meat.
I prefer to be able to discern individual beans and chunks of meat, but my Skipton dish was wonderfully pulpy.
And it’s definitely one of those dishes that benefit from standing, chilling, reheating and repeating. As my dad would sarcastically say: the best when it’s all gone. Not in this case, Daddy!
More comfort food recipes
Bigos, traditional Polish dish a.k.a. hunters’ stew, is a long-cooked, hearty pot of sauerkraut and assorted meats. Best after three days of cooking!
The best cassoulet with pork and fresh duck legs. Traditional French cassoulet is cooked with dried haricot beans, in low oven or in a slow cooker. Swap duck for chicken legs if you like; cassoulet is a hearty and warming one pot dish.
Kalpudding, Swedish brown cabbage meatloaf, served with boiled or mashed potatoes and a sweet and spicy preserve, is best homemade – which gives you an excuse NOT to go to IKEA!
More bean and pulse recipes
Butter beans and chorizo dish with crispy Parmesan topping, a little heat from chilli and saltiness from anchovy. A dish fit for a king and it’s ready in half an hour.
Spicy, cheesy lentils bake, a superior vegetarian dish put together in 15 minutes. Baked cheesy lentils inspired by NY Times Cooking.
Tomato and chickpea tray bake with chunks of feta roasting upon the vegetables, spiced and sweet with honey and chilli dressing. An easy vegetarian meal.