What makes this soup different from one that uses, say, ham hocks, is that the marrow in the ham bone melts into the soup, bringing extra richness and body. So if you have a ham bone, use it! You will be rewarded. If not, a ham hock will also be good. My ham bone fit easily into the pot I used, but Melissa Clark suggests that, in general, you ask your butcher to cut it in half or thirds for you, so that it’s guaranteed to fit and also has some marrow exposed.
As for beans, you could probably use any light-colored bean you like. I had a bag of Rancho Gordo’s yellow eye beans in the cupboard, so I used those. (Rancho Gordo beans make a great holiday present, by the way.) Also, I find that adding a little salt when I soak dried beans makes them turn out better when I cook them, and here’s a video from America’s Test Kitchen that explains why. I don’t tend to use the full amount of salt that’s called for in the video, but I have, and it worked beautifully. (I don’t use that much because I tend to forget to rinse the beans after soaking, and then I wind up with salty beans. Using less salt still seems to help, and then there’s no need to rinse.)
Twelve to 24 hours before you plan to start the soup, put the beans in a bowl and cover with plenty of cold water. Add a generous pinch of salt. Set aside at room temperature. (Or, if you don’t have that much time, you can instead use a quick-soak method: put the beans, lots of cold water, and a generous pinch of salt in a pot, bring it to a boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain, and then proceed with the recipe.)
Warm a large (about 5-quart) pot over medium-high heat. Add the bacon, and cook until crisp, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate, and save for garnishing the soup. Add the carrots, celery, and onion to the bacon fat in the pan. Cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for 1 minute more.
Put the ham bone and bay leaf into the pot, and add 8 cups water and 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat; then add the beans, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the cabbage and simmer for 30 minutes more. At this point, fish out a bean and taste it: it should be nearly done. If it’s still pretty firm, let the soup simmer a bit longer before continuing. Then stir in the kale and simmer until the kale is soft but still bright green, about 15 minutes. Remove the ham bone and bay leaf. If you’d like, you can pull the meat from the ham bone, chop it up, and stir it back into the soup.
Serve with freshly ground black pepper and a dash of hot sauce, and more salt, if needed. (Oh, and crumbled bacon, if you want.)
Yield: 6 to 8 servings