Known also as turtle beans, black beans have been used in the Deep South to make this inimitable soup since at least the early nineteenth century, and even today, turtle bean soup is deemed to be one of the most elegant ways to begin an elaborate dinner. Ironically, the greatest version I ever tasted was prepared by the Greek owner of The Coach House in New York City, who obtained the recipe in Atlanta when he originally operated a restaurant there called The Coach & Six. The soup can be made with beef bones, salt pork, ham hocks, tomatoes, beef stock, and countless other ingredients, depending on the region. The one cardinal rule is that it must be silky smooth and contain either Madeira or sherry. There is a quick method for making the soup, whereby the beans are boiled 5 minutes and allowed to stand 1 hour instead of being soaked overnight, then slowly simmered; but I’m convinced that the texture of the soup is not the same when this shortcut is taken.
Rinse and pick over the beans, place in a large pot with enough water to cover, and soak overnight. Drain the beans, add the water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer 1½ hours.
In another large pot, heat the oil over moderate heat, add the onions, celery, and garlic, and cook, stirring, till softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle on the flour and stir 1 minute longer. Add the beans and their cooking liquid, the ham bone, bay leaves, and salt and pepper, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook 3 hours.
Remove and discard the ham bone and bay leaves and drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid in a saucepan. In a blender or food processor, reduce the beans to a smooth purée and scrape into a large pot. Add the reserved cooking liquid, the salt and pepper, Maderia, and lemon juice and simmer till piping hot, 5 to 10 minutes.
To serve, ladle the soup into soup plates, sprinkle the eggs over the tops, and garnish each portion with a slice of lemon.
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