Ham usually is the main course for Christmas dinner in the Gray household.
But with all of the side dishes filling the table, no one ends up eating that much ham.
That's a good thing.
The black bean soup can be garnished with a dollop of sour cream or served as is.
As great as it is right out of the oven, it's even better the way it gets used for the next week.
If I ever owned a restaurant, I would serve a sandwich my mom has made for as long as I can remember. Grill some thick slices of ham in the skillet and pile the meat on a large kaiser roll or onion bun. Then add chopped onion and mayonnaise mixed together, swiss cheese and bacon. Put it under the broiler or in a toaster oven until the cheese melts and the top half of the bun browns.
The secret to the sandwich is mixing the chopped onion in with the mayo (and it's got to be Hellman's mayonnaise). Add them separately and it doesn't taste the same. The flavor of the onion must permeate the mayo when they're mixed together. That's the only explanation.
Black Bean Soup
2 cups dried black beans
1 onion, sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 ham bone
1 1/2 cups cooked ham chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
3 tablespoons sherry
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Soak the beans overnight in a soup pot with enough water so they are covered. Drain the beans but save the soaking liquid. Add enough cold water to the soaking liquid to make two quarts.
Put the beans and the water back in the pot and add the onion, celery and ham bone. Bring the mixture to a boil before turning down the heat and letting it simmer partially covered for 3-4 hours, until the beans are soft. Add more water to replace any that evaporates.
Remove the ham bone and puree the soup, using an immersion blender or a food processor. Add the cooked ham and reheat, seasoning with mustard, sherry, salt and plenty of pepper.
The other dish we always make after a holiday ham, and one of the reasons we always get a semi-boneless ham, is black bean soup.
The recipe comes from the 1990 edition of ''The Fannie Farmer Cookbook'' by Marion Cunningham, and we've probably been making it for 20 years. There's no better use for that leftover ham bone.
Actually, my wife has been making it for that long. But since I was on vacation between Christmas and New Year's - and since I had a food page due as soon as I got back to work - I took over the soup-making chores this time.
The use of black beans and the fact that the soup is pureed give it a different taste and texture than most ham and bean soups.
Not all grocery stores in the area stock dry black beans (Giant Eagle in Howland has them) and the long soaking period adds time to the preparation, but it's worth the effort.
We tend to leave a thick layer of meat around the bone to impart more flavor. Some of the ham will fall off the bone during simmering and can be pureed with the bean / veggie mixture. Make sure to trim off any meat that remains, though, and add it to the chunked ham that's already been reserved. Those bits pulled from the bone, which get a blackened appearance after simmering for hours with the beans, taste the best. And let's face it, no one ever has complained, "This soup is too meaty."
An immersion blender is the easiest way to get right consistency, but a food processor or traditional blender can do the job.
The primary version of the recipe calls for two tablespoons of lemon juice to add a bit of acidity. We make one of the variations that calls for sherry instead of lemon juice. Start with three tablespoons of sherry, but I know I added a little more than that to achieve the right balance. The dry mustard also adds a distinctive touch.
It makes for a hearty bowl that's substantial enough to be a main course accompanied with a crusty bread and a salad.
It can be served with a dollop of sour cream and/or diced green onions on top, but it doesn't need the garnish.
If there's a downside to this soup, it's that it doesn't make for the prettiest bowl. We first taste food with our eyes, and a thick base made predominantly from pureed black beans makes for a soup with a purple-grey hue.
If necessary, take that first bite with eyes closed. One taste and the soup will become irresistible, regardless of how it looks.