Recipe File: Senate Bean Soup

Recipe File: Senate Bean Soup

Chase the chill with a hearty bowl of navy bean soup

Chase the chill with a hearty bowl of Navy bean soup

As winter struts its stuff across the land thoughts—and appetites—turn to a hearty soup simmering on the stove. Maybe that’s why January is designated National Soup Month.

This Navy bean soup is so good it’s been on the menu at the Capitol Hill Senate Restaurant in Washington D.C. since 1904.

How it got there is a matter of dispute. One legend has it that Idaho Senator Fred Thomas Dubois, who was in office from 1901-07 and supervised the restaurant, mandated that this soup be served there every day.

Cartoon by T.J. Kozak

Cartoon by T.J. Kozak

Another tale attributes the menu mandate to Minnesota Senator Knute Nelson.

Then there’s the story that Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois, U.S. Speaker of the House from 1903-11, had a hankering for it and simply demanded the daily kettle.

Whatever the history, it’s known that Michigan’s own President Gerald R. Ford loved the soup. Older versions of the recipe specify Michigan Navy beans because the state was (and still is) such a big supplier of dry beans. The climate and soil—especially in Michigan’s Thumb and Saginaw Valley—are well suited for cultivating dry beans, and growers produce a range of red, white and black beans that are shipped around the world.

Learn about the history of beans and Michigan’s crops at The Michigan Bean Commission website.

Here are two soup variations to try, depending on your mood and ingredients on hand. I’ve made simple soup #1 in the past but usually stick with recipe #2. The U.S. Senate website posts its Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup, which includes a braised onion, as well as a recipe for five gallons of the goodness in a pot.

Whichever you choose, you’ll be warmed and fortified by slurping this satisfying soup. TIP: Make it a day ahead; tastes better the second day.

Easy Senate Bean Soup #1
Michigan Bean Shippers Cookbook (circa 1960-ish)

2 lb. dry Michigan Navy beans
1-1/2 lb. ham hocks

Cover beans with cold water and soak overnight.

Drain and cover again with cold water. Add ham hocks. Cover pot and simmer for about 4 hours until beans are tender.

Just before serving bruise beans with large spoon, just enough to cloud. Add salt and pepper to taste. NOTE: Do not add salt until ready to serve.

Senate Bean Soup #2
Michigan Bean Commission 

1 lb. (2 cups) dry Michigan Navy beans
1 meaty ham bone or 1-1/2 lb. ham hocks
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup mashed potato flakes or 1-1/2 cups mashed potatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon each: nutmeg, oregano, basil
1 bay leaf

Wash and sort beans. In a large kettle, cover beans with 6-8 cups hot water. Bring to a boil; boil 2 minutes.

Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour.

Add another 2 quarts of cold water and ham bone. Bring to a boil; simmer 1-1/2 hours.

Stir in remaining ingredients. Simmer 20-30 minutes or until beans are tender.

Remove ham bone, trim off meat, return to soup.

Makes about 3 quarts.

NOTES: I skip the oregano and basil. Along with the celery I add about a cup of chopped carrots and, depending on how much ham falls off the bone, another two or so cups of ham chunks. Before adding the vegetables and ham, bruise some of the beans. 

Slow cooker version: simmer all ingredients in the slow cooker for about 6 hours.