Boo! I’m back. I’m taking a break from promoting Chips to share a quirky and delicious Halloween tradition—Pumpkin and Ghost Soup. But first let me tell you about the little trip we took to Hilton Head to celebrate Skip’s birthday. It was just what we both needed after a busy and beachless summer. Consolation prize for delayed gratification is that October may just be the perfect time for a beach trip. That’s when the sky is set in sapphires and the light is diamond clear. We rode our bikes, ate, swam, and read. That’s it.
In the meantime, back in Asheville, the autumn colors were doubling down. It’s a steep, quick climb that brings you from the piedmont into the mountains and this time of year it’s a drive from one season into the next. Rounding into home, Asheville was postcard perfect with vibrant autumn colors. It looks like Halloween time!
Travel Joy arrives • From our balcony • First boozy lunch | Made Julia Child’s quick gravlox • Path to the beach • Frogmore stew | Bike trail between the dunes • Shortwave radio • Low tide
Back to the Soup
So, as I said, there’s this special meal thing we do for the spookiest night of the year that we call Pumpkin & Ghost Soup. It’s gotta be, like, a 25 year tradition, from back when we lived in Charlotte and celebrated most Halloweens with our friend April. As I recall, the tradition of eating soup on Halloween started about the time our Party Hearty spirits were each giving up the ghost. We were settling down and Halloween was morphing into a cozier (but no less campy) celebration of fall. Hey, what could be more cozy than a bowl of soup and the Halloween episode of Thirty-Something?
Black bean soup was way trendy in the 80s and I can almost recall the ironic moment when it struck me as just right for Halloween. Probably I was reading Metropolitan Home Magazine. The details of how whole eggs became ghosts and carrot slices turned into pumpkins is lost in the mist of time. I just remember that the assembly got named Pumpkin and Ghost soup and it remains so today. I’m glad to say April still lives nearby, now in Black Mountain, and we still gather at Halloween around a cauldron of soup.
Ways to Make Black Bean Soup
Any black bean soup can transform into Pumpkin and Ghost Soup. It’s the visual hook—garnishes strewn across the graveyard brown surface—that makes it Pumpkin and Ghost. You have lots of options for the soup itself. If time is short and attention is focused on other things, make a quick version with canned black beans. It’s tasty. And truth be told it’s the authentic 80s approach. Or you can do the amazing and delicious pressure cooker method that takes you from dried beans to soup in 30 minutes, no soaking needed. There are recipes online for both methods. But my favorite version of Pumpkin and Ghost Soup involves dried beans and long simmering. It’s the one I do when All Hollow’s Eve weather is bracingly fallish, woodsmoke fills the air, and I’m in no particular hurry. That’s when I get out my big black pot and stir up the brew I’m sharing today.
Pumpkin and Ghost Black Bean Soup
Makes 12 cups, or 6 to 7 servings • Allow 3 hours to simmer the soup
The way I season my black bean soup comes right out of 1989 when Southwestern flavors and ingredients were coming onto the stage. I use chipotles, ancho chili powder, oregano, cumin, and lots of garlic. A single smoked ham hock infuses the brew with fallish woodsmoke, and to sooth the spicy heat, a bit of brown sugar and the velvety flavor of cinnamon. Carrots get cooked separately so they stay bright and orange. Eggs get boiled beforehand too. You can make the soup and its spooky menagerie a day or two ahead, then reheat and assemble everything at the witching hour.
HUNTING – GATHERING
BLACK BEANS should be as fresh as possible but that’s a difficult determination to make. It’s not that old beans are significantly less flavorful or healthy, they just add to cooking time—up to an hour more. SMOKED HAM HOCKS usually have an overabundance of smoky savor so I remove the skin. You can use a smoked turkey wing instead, also skinned, or 3 or 4 slices of bacon. PORK NECK BONES are gruesomely appropriate ingredients for cauldron cooking. Bone-in country style ribs are good too. ANCHO CHILI POWDER has a deep, sweet flavor and mild-to-medium heat. Look for it in the latin spice section of your supermarket or get it from a Latin market. If all you find are whole ancho chilis, heat them in a hot skillet until soft and pliable and then grind in a spice mill.
FOR THE SOUP
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin, roughly crushed
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1½ –2 pounds pork neck bones, thoroughly dried
2 cups (1 large) diced onion
1 cup (2 medium) diced carrot
1 cup (2 ribs) diced celery
½ cup (8–12 cloves) coarsely chopped garlic
1–2 bay leaves
1 small stick of cinnamon
2–3 whole cloves (depending on size), top buds crushed
1–2 tablespoons chopped chipotles in adobo, according to taste
2–4 teaspoons ancho chili powder, according to taste
1 teaspoon oregano, plus more to taste
1 pound dried black beans, soaked overnight and drained (or use the quick soak method)
10 cups hot (tap) water
1 smoked ham hock (about ½ pound) skin removed
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1½ teaspoons salt
1 cup finely minced onion
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
1 clove garlic, pressed or grated
Additional seasonings, to taste
Carrot Pumpkins, see recipe below
6–7 hard- or soft-boiled eggs (your preference), peeled
- Pour the oil into a heavy 5- to 6-quart pot over high heat. Add the black pepper and cumin and stir a moment until fragrant. Add the neck bones and cook until some sides are browned—4 or 5 minutes. Combine the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves, cinnamon, and cloves with the meat and cook until the onion becomes translucent—2 or 3 minutes. Stir in the chipotles and ancho chili powder and cook another 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the black beans, hot water, and ham hock. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook for 1½ hours, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the lid and add the salt and sugar. At this point check the black bean’s progress. If they’re becoming easy to mash, the soup should be done in another 30 minutes. If they’re still hard and grainy (mine always are), you may need to simmer the soup another 1 to 1½ hours
- The soup is done when the black beans are soft and a few are beginning to fall apart. Remove the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, ham hock, and carefully fish out the neck bones—the meat and small bones may have separated. Discard the spices and reserve the meat.
- Once cool enough to handle, separate the meat from the bones—you have to work at the ham hock. Chop the meat and add it to the soup.
- Use a potato masher or immersion blender to pulverize some of beans. You want the soup soft and velvety with about half of the beans still intact. At this point you can cover the soup and hold it for 1 or 2 hours until ready to serve. Any longer than that, put the soup in the fridge.
- About 15 minutes before the dinner bell tolls, bring the soup to a simmer and add the minced onion, lemon or lime juice, and garlic. Check the seasonings at this point too. Need more salt? How about a fresh shake or two of oregano and chili powder?
- To serve, dish the soup into warm soup plates or wide bowls. Distribute the Carrot Pumpkins among the bowls and stand an eggy ghost in the center of each.
FOR THE CARROT PUMPKINS
4–5 cups sliced carrots, cut in ½-thick slices
4 cups water
1½ teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
- In a medium pot, combine the water, salt, and sugar and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and return the water to a boil. Cook the carrots for 10 to 12 minutes until they’re tender.
- Transfer the carrots to a bowl or container, along with a small bit of the cooking water, and cover. Set aside until it’s time to serve the soup.
The Whole Meal
So, the Pumpkin and Ghost Halloween meal is simple. Soup first, then salad. Make that a bitter salad, which is a mix of arugula, curly endive, and escarole, filled out with Romaine lettuce. I like to add fresh pear or apple slices and paper-thin slivers of red onion that have been soaked in vinegar and salt. For dressing, a simple and tart vinaigrette, and maybe some crumbles of blue cheese if you have it. Pass dark rye bread, or garlic toast if you suspect vampires are lurking!