In this part of the south when we cook beans, we usually cook pintos or white beans (which can be great northerns or navy beans) or a mixture of the two. These are our equivalent to the dried red beans they cook in the deep south (Louisiana, Mississippi). Cooking beans is just like making sweet tea and cornbread, there are many different recipes and methods, depending on how your mama or grandma or whoever taught you to cook did it. Therefore, I am not saying this is the only way to cook a pot of beans, but it is the way I cook them and the way we like them.
So much about southern cuisine is criticized as being 'not healthy' these days, sometimes unfairly and sometimes accurately, and now there are such trends as 'meatless Mondays' and not eating meat, it's sort of funny to a lot of older southerners who can remember not only "Meatless Mondays" but meatless Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, heck maybe meatless weeks at a time. Southern folks learned a long time ago to make it on what they had and meat wasn't always part of that situation. What they did have most of the time was dried beans and maybe some ham hocks (maybe) or some bacon grease or some lard...some sort of meat grease. The ham hocks or bits of actual country ham would be a special pot of beans back in my grandmother's day, but she had a spoonful of bacon grease or lard to drop in them or a little jowl bacon and that would season them up nicely too. In my humble opinion, you cannot cook dried beans without some form of meat seasoning, even if it is just a spoonful of bacon grease. It just makes all of the difference in the world.
Nowadays, I almost always put some form of ham or such in my beans, not a half a hog or anything but some, because we eat ham and beans as our main course much of the time along with cornbread, potatoes of some kind, maybe some greens, Vidalia onion, relish...you get the picture...lol. The beans are not usually served alone. I am finding that cooking dried beans is becoming a lost art with the younger crowd, at least those I know, and that concerns me. Beans are great source of protein and fiber, calcium, and iron and so many good things and they are inexpensive. Let's teach our children to cook!
Now, let's cook some beans! First, decide what kind you will cook. I cook them all, but on this day I cooked mixed beans, pinto and great northerns. This method will work for pintos or white beans. Pintos do take a little longer to cook than white varieties do. This is what I used in this pot of beans:
1 lb mixed dried beans (pintos and great northerns)
1 Tbs. salt (taste for seasoning when done and add more if needed to your taste and depending on what type of meat you put in the beans)
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder (optional)
1 Tbs. bacon drippings
2 cups chopped country ham pieces (or you could use a cut up ham steak if you cannot get country ham or don't care for it)
OPTIONAL: You can use two smoked ham hocks in place of the chopped ham pieces, if you do, you can omit the bacon drippings because of the fat content in the ham hocks)
Place the beans one handful at a time in a colander in the sink. Pick through them as you put them in the colander and pick out any little rocks or shriveled beans. Run water over the beans to wash them off really well. Beans that you get now are fairly clean, but I still like to wash them off well and pick through them, because you do find a little rock now and then and it's not pleasant to bite into those.
Place the beans in a deep pan. I like to use my cast iron dutch oven, it cooks beans so well. Cover with water about 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil. Boil for about 2 minutes. Watch carefully so they don't boil over. Carefully pour this water off of the beans and then cover with fresh water to about 2 inches above the beans. Bring them to a boil once again and then turn down to a low simmer. Add the salt, pepper, garlic powder, and bacon drippings at this point. Some say not to salt beans until they are done, because they will stay hard and won't get done as fast. I have never had that experience so I am not sure why some people say that and I think they season best if seasoned early in the cooking. OPTIONAL: Some soak their beans in water overnight and then pour that off and start from there. It does make cooking time a little shorter, but I prefer the quicker method of boiling and then pouring the water off. It seems to reduce the bean's, ummm explosive after effects, if you know what I mean...lol.
I like to let the beans cook for about 2 hours and then add in the chopped ham and cook them for at least another 2 hours. Add water at this point if the beans have soaked up too much water. This is not a quick dish, but it is fairly carefree once you get it on. Just be sure to check your beans about every hour and see if you need to add water. They will soak up the water like crazy and there is nothing that is worse than a scorched pot of beans. If you are using ham hocks instead of the chopped ham, put them in at the very beginning because they need all of that cooking time to get them tender. At close to the end of the cooking time, take the ham hocks out of the pot and let them cool enough to take the lean meat off the bone to add back to the pot. Discard the bone and fat.
If you are using ham hocks, look for ham hocks that are meaty and that you can see some good lean meat on. If you shop where there is an actual butcher (I know it's rare these days) and they don't have good packaged ham hocks, ask the butcher if he has some good meaty hocks in the back.