A nod to the ham and beans with cornbread that I grew up with in the South: offering warm, satisfying comfort on a wintry day, this stew wins double bonus points for being economical and nutritious.
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté carrots for 2 minutes, add celery and onions and cook for another 2 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for another minute.
Combine soaked, drained cranberry beans with vegetables and vegetable stock in the slow cooker. Add the tomatoes. Stir in the tomato paste and seasonings. Add the ham hock or, if using pork shank, slice the thick fat layer and cut it off in two big pieces - this allows the heat to get to the meat quicker and cook it to tenderness; stir into the stew (it adds flavor, will not dissolve into fat, and is removed prior to serving) along with the meaty bone to the mixture. Cook on high heat for 6-8 hours.
Stir the mixture occasionally, if you're at home and able to do this. When you get home or an hour or so before serving, lower the heat to Low and add the kale. Alternatively, the kale can be added in the beginning - I like to add it at the end so it retains it's bright green color. Before serving, remove the pieces of pork rind.
To prepare a low sodium version, as I did, using an uncured pork shank instead of a ham hock, plan a day or two ahead to allow the dry rub to "cure" the pork.
I purchased the pork shank and several other cuts of local, sustainably raised pork from Da-Le Ranch. If you use ham hocks, you can skip this step.
For the pork: score (make diagonal cuts) in the fat layer with a knife so the spices can soak into the meat. Combine 1 tablespoon of smoked paprika with 1 tablespoon of Bourbon Barrel Foods Bourbon brown sugar and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Smear the mixture onto the pork, place in a large ziplock bag and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days. Cut the thick fat layer off and brown the rind and the pork shank in a frying pan with a teaspoon of olive oil before adding it to the slow cooker. The hard pork rind does not render into fat, but adds a lot of flavor to the stew and is removed before serving. Use the same pan to sauté the vegetables before adding to the slow cooker.