2010 didn’t exit quietly, and the last month of it was a royal mess. But my aunt is okay now – even heading back to work! The rewards of health! – and for that, we’re relieved. I’m home again and excited for a new year, for the return of plain, normal, everyday life. I love plain, normal, everyday life. The laundry, the occasional clean sheets, the morning coffee that I never brew right, the dog asleep on the couch, the arrival of the mail, the mail carrier who hates the dog, the restaurant, the work, the split pea soup.
Few things are uglier than split pea soup, but that is alright with me. I’ve been on something of a split pea binge for the past month. (Am I the first person in the world to write the words split, pea, and binge in sequence? If so, I assume I will also be the last.) I’d made split pea soup a few times in years past, and once I even made an exotic version involving miso, but until this past fall, I hadn’t found one I felt loyal to. Now that I have, I am celebrating by eating a totally immoderate amount of it. By the way, if the idea of a split pea binge doesn’t ring your bell, I can also recommend a Reese’s Peanut Butter Trees binge. ‘Tis the season, -ish. Hard to go wrong, either way.
Split pea soup is a straightforward thing, and it hardly needs a recipe. Whether it includes ham or not, the process is mostly the same: get some aromatics going in a pot, add split peas and your liquid of choice, and cook until the peas soften, soften some more, and finally settle to a pleasing mush. But I learned my recipe, or the bones of it, from my friend Winnie, and though it looks plain on paper, it really does the job.
Behold the Winnie in her natural habitat. She’s one of the finest, most intuitive cooks I know: even when she’s cooking from a recipe, she hardly looks at it. She just knows what to do. Though she lives on the other side of the continent, I was lucky enough to get to cook with her several times in 2010, and to learn a few things in the process. For instance, I learned that one should never be without a stash of Allan Benton’s country ham, the backbone of this split pea soup and, now, the newest staple of my kitchen. I would have taken a picture of it for you, but I used my last package a week ago. 2011 is off to a rough start.
Until Winnie let me in on the not-so-secret secret, I used to be daunted by the idea of trying to get a hold of proper country ham: the southern kind, slow cured and naturally smoked, fragrant and salty and thoroughly hammy. I thought you had to buy a whole leg – and maybe from some producers, you do. But Allan Benton sells his in vacuum-packed slices that are perfect for chucking into a soup pot or frying in a skillet, saucing with apple cider, and then sandwiching in a biscuit. Whatever you like. Sometimes I open the fridge, pull out a package, and just sniff at it. It’s so smoky – in the true wood-smoke way, not that trumped-up liquid smoke way – that you can smell it even through the plastic. Now you know how I spend my free time.
Winnie’s split pea soup, as she taught it to me, begins with a slice of Benton’s ham, which you fry in a soup pot with a little olive oil. When it’s golden on both sides and the bottom of the pan has a few nice, browned bits stuck to it, you add some chopped carrot and onion and sweat them for ten minutes or so, and then you add split peas and water. There’s no need for stock here; the ham flavor is so generous that it fills the pot. Then you forget about it for at least an hour, and likely two. And then you set the table, and because it’s January and dark outside and you happen to have bought some candles at the store, you light one or two or three, and dinner is ready.
Until recently, I didn’t know that the age of dried legumes made a difference in their cooking time, but it does. If your dried split peas are fairly fresh, they will take less time to cook than those that have sat on the grocery store shelf for a while. In any case, cook them until they completely break down. If yours are on the older side, you may need to start with a little more water than I call for below, since the cooking time will be on the long side.
In a soup pot or Dutch oven, warm a little olive oil over medium high heat. Add the ham, and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Add the leek and carrot, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. (If the pan seems dry when you add the vegetables, add oil as needed.) Add the split peas and 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring regularly to prevent scorching, for 90 minutes to 2 hours, or until the peas have completely broken down and the soup has a creamy texture. This amount of water makes for a fairly thick soup; if you like yours thinner, add more water until it reaches your desired texture. The slice of ham should break apart as it cooks, but if necessary, use a couple of forks to tear it into smaller pieces. Taste the soup, and salt as needed. If the flavor is a little dull, add a splash or two of apple cider vinegar; you shouldn’t taste the vinegar in the soup, but it should subtly wake up the flavor.
Yield: about 6 servings