Leeks bring spring to humble ham and beans

Food is such a big part of my memory. My grandma's cinnamon rolls, baking and warming the early morning with the heat from the oven and the sweet-spicy smell. My mom making fresh bread, letting me help punch the dough down when the time came. Gathering with family at the holiday table – any holiday will do – for a meal that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see.

It's not that much different now that I am not a kid anymore. Certain dishes bring me instantly back to my childhood. And it is still fun to pull a chair up to the holiday table. Though I have graduated from the kid's table.

And one of the best parts of holidays, for me anyway, is the leftover food and the great things that can be made in the days after the good china is put away.

Of course, Thanksgiving turkey is the king for that, but leftover Easter ham is full of possibilities.

A recipe that uses ham and lets me put a new spin on a favorite dish from my childhood is a lightly creamy stew of ham with leeks and white beans. The ham and beans make it hearty enough to be a satisfying meal. The leeks add light oniony flavor and a lovely green that reminds me of springtime.

Plus, since the ham is already cooked and you use canned white beans, this is about as good as it gets for a tasty dinner in about 30 minutes. When I made this most recently, I did it on a lazy weekend morning then put it in the fridge to eat later, at the end of a busy afternoon.

The creaminess comes from Neufchatel cheese, similar to cream cheese, but lower in fat. And a little tanginess that pairs nicely with the smoky ham comes from whole grain mustard either cooked into the soup or added as a garnish.

Soup is always a favorite in our house, and this dish was no exception. My mom even gave it her seal of approval. I serve mine with toasty garlic bread for dipping, and my mom opted for homey corn muffins. Both great choices.

The flavor notes I remember from the version my mom made in my childhood were clearly present in the stew, but the leeks, Neufchatel and mustard made it my own.

I look forward to many years of making this for and with my son. And for him to someday share his version with me.

Ham, leek and white bean stew

Time: 30 minutes; Yield 4-6 servings


Melt butter in a heavy stock pot or Dutch oven on medium heat and add sliced leeks. Cook leeks about 10 minutes until they are soft, stirring often to keep them from burning.

Add beans, ham, chicken broth, cheese and, if using, the mustard. Season with pepper to taste.

Bring the stew to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve with a sprinkle of the parsley, the lemon wedges and, if using, extra mustard.

Cook's notes: The darker green part of the leek can be fibrous and tough. For this quick stew, you want just the white and light green parts.

If you don't have leftover Easter ham, get a thick slab of deli ham to cut into cubes.

Since some people don't like mustard, this can be added as a garnish at the table. Or use 1 tablespoon in the soup and have extra on the table for diners who like things a little tangier.

I omit salt in this dish since the ham adds enough salt.

Skip the bread on the side, and this can be a good gluten-free option. Just make sure the mustard you use is gluten-free. I like Trader Joe's whole grain. It is on their list of gluten-free items.