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Originally published Friday, March 15, 2013 at 12:00 PM

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With a honkin' hock and a tiny twist, store-bought soup's on

Instead of going out to eat, sometimes all Nancy Leson wants to do is stay home and stir up a big pot of soup.

Seattle Times food writer

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Homemade soup is one of the easiest menus to create. Simply soak dry beans overnight... MORE
Thanks for chiming in, takn63. Anyone else want to share their homemade soup ideas --... MORE

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OUT AND ABOUT at restaurants, I'm always tempted by razor-clam chowder with apple-smoked bacon and elegant root-vegetable veloutés poured tableside. And it's a rare week when you won't find me at a Vietnamese pho shop, Chinese soup-noodle joint or Korean cafe specializing in spicy soft tofu soup, or milky white sul lung tang built with beef bones.

But sometimes, especially in the dead of winter, all I want is to stay home and stir up a big pot of old-fashioned ham-and-bean soup.

I used to be one of those who'd put her nose in the air at the idea of making a soup whose main ingredient comes with a "ham flavor" packet. But I got over myself after a friend shared the secret recipe for her superb beef barley soup: every ingredient, save for the beef, came (shhhh!) straight out of a box.

These days I keep my kitchen stocked with Hurst's HamBeens brand 15 Bean Soup, though I'm quick to ditch that dull packet in favor of a honkin' ham hock.

Finding a really good hock — a meaty, smoky number — isn't always as easy as it should be. That's why I freeze them when I find them, though there's another solution if you like a lot of ham in your ham-and-bean soup.

Augment a skinny hock with a cooked ham steak, pan-seared, diced and added to the soup shortly before you're through cooking. Better yet, get your hands on a leftover spiral-ham bone: one that still has plenty of meat clinging to it. I recently snagged one — cheap — at a supermarket deli counter; all I had to do was bat my eyelashes and ask, "Say, can you sell me that ham bone?"

Taking the time to sauté aromatic vegetables rather than just tossing them into the mix (as the HamBeens folks suggest) adds depth to the finished product, so don't skip that step, OK? And because I can never leave well enough alone, I also recommend you give this all-American classic a Mexican twist by adding prepared salsa and fresh cilantro. Though you might go the old-school route with a can of diced tomatoes and a handful of fresh thyme.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

Spicy Bag-'o-Beans Soup with Ham

Serves 8

1 20-ounce package of Hurst's HamBeens 15 Bean Soup

(or 3 cups mixed dried beans)

1 meaty ham hock, scored

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

1 cup diced onion

1/2 cup diced carrot

1/2 cup diced celery

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 cup (or 1 small can) prepared Mexican salsa

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped (optional)

1. Place beans in a large saucepan, cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil then turn off heat, cover and let rest for 1 hour. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, make ham stock: Bring the scored ham hock to a boil in 10 cups water, then lower heat and simmer for 1 hour. Remove hock from pot, reserving stock. Slice ham from bone and cut into chunks.

3. In a large soup pot, heat the oil. Add onions and cook over medium-high heat, stirring until translucent. Add carrots and celery and cook, stirring, until soft (about 3 minutes). Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the ham meat, the denuded bone, the drained beans, salt, pepper and chili pepper and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Add reserved stock and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender and the soup has thickened to a consistency that suits you (an hour or so should do it).

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