I have an entire cache of food memories about which I could wax poetic on my own “The BestThing I Ever Ate” show (one of my favorite Cooking Channel shows). For me, the food memory is woven with the time and place. Thus, one memory in particular that stands out is a magnificent plate of lentils and sausage I had while visiting Ulm, a cool city in Southern Germany. First of all, the setting was remarkable – a warm and cozy dinner hall with long rustic tables, a crackling hearth, and hearty food and drink. I was travel and work weary, and decided to try what I thought would be a simple dish. Well, this seemingly humble plate of steaming lentils and bronzed sausages blew my mind with its rich flavor and silky texture. The sausages had a subtly smoky flavor and were incredibly lean, and the lentils were soft but not mushy. It reminded me of my grandmother’s pork and beans, which was also simple but incredibly flavorful with ham hocks and abundant herbs.
So, here is my homage to my grandmother and to Ulm – a South Carolina-Swabia mashup made with Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas, fresh ham hocks, fresh vegetables, and German-style sausages from Brat Hans. (found at Whole Foods, Wegmans, and other retailers.) I added some kale for nutrition and use tomato paste to thicken and add flavor instead of the traditional flour. Enjoy with hearty bread and a stein of good beer. You’ll sleep like a baby (which is spelled the same in English and German!)
1 pound dried Sea Island Red Peas
2 yellow onions
3 whole cloves
1 fresh bay leaf
2 fresh and unsmoked ham hocks
3-4 springs of fresh thyme
4 stalks celery and leaves
1 slice thick, uncured bacon
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chopped kale
2 cups chicken stock
¼ cup raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar
Pinch crushed red pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
4-6 traditional German sausages
1. Rinse and pick over peas. Place in a large pot.
2. Peel one of the onions, leaving on the stem. Gently press the stems of the cloves into the flesh of the onion. Place in the pot with the peas.
3 . Take two of the celery stalks and break them in half. Drop in the pot.
4. With kitchen twine, tie the bay leaf and thyme into a bundle and drop in the pot.
5. Cover the peas with 8 cups of water. Place over high heat and bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Skim any dark foam from the top of the beans. Simmer the beans, uncovered, for one hour until softened, periodically checking the level of water in the pot.
6. Turn off the heat and remove the onion, celery, cloves, and bay leaf and thyme. Discard. Remove the ham hocks from the pot and set on a plate. When cool enough to handle, strip the meat from the bones and set aside.
7. Mince the remaining onion, celery stalks and leaves, and carrots. Set aside.
8. Fry the bacon in a heavy skillet over low-medium heat, until practically all of the fat has been rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside.
9. Add the onions to the pan and saute over medium high heat until translucent. Add the celery and carrots and saute for another 2-3 minutes. Add the entire contents of the skillet to the pot with the peas.
10. Pour in the chicken stock and add the tomato paste, vinegar, kale, and crushed red pepper. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for another hour, periodically checking the level of liquid in the pot to make sure that the peas don’t dry out.
11. Using a wooden spoon, smush about ¼ of the peas against the side of the pot, then mix in. Add the reserved pork to the pot, and crumble and add the bacon. Simmer the peas for another 15 minutes until you have a nice, thick gravy and the peas are very soft but still intact. Fry up your sausages until they are browned on all sides while the peas finish cooking.
12. Season the peas with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with the sausages and good beer.