Split Pea Soup: It’s Ugly

There is no way around it: split pea soup is frightfully unattractive. However, it tastes divine, and is a frugal dish that anyone can make.

But it sure does taste good.

It seems I am making a lot of soups recently. I think it started with Zak and I having the flu. This fomented the making of the Shiksa Ball Soup, which has unnatural curative powers. Then, I had a craving for Hot and Sour Soup, and I had the ingredients, so whoop! What do you know, I made some of that, and ate it for about four days. And then, last night, Zak was in a bread making mood again, so I had to figure out what to make to go with his cardamom-flavored boule.

An earthy lamb stew with flageolet would have been nice, but I had no lamb.

Beef stew would have worked well, but alas, the freezer was empty of beef.

Clam chowder I wasn’t in the mood for.

I had the inspired thought of north Indian masoor dal–those beautiful, hulled, split pink or red lentils (which are nothing but brown lentils stripped naked) which cook up into a nice yellow puree. I cook mine with some turmeric, ginger and garlic, then season it with a fiery tarka at the end. A tarka is made of spices and sometimes onions or chiles cooked in ghee or oil, then stirred into a dish just before serving to fill it with fragrance and delightful flavor. I tend to make my tarka with very browned onions, golden-fried garlic, fresh chiles, whole cumin and mustard seeds.

Sometimes I put chicken in the dal, but more likely, I add vegetables, like green beans or squash or eggplant.

As delightful as that seemed to me, Zak vetoed it. He is not so passionate about masoor dal tarka as I am, I suppose. I could probably eat such a thing nearly every day with joy, but he is not as fond of it.

So, then, playfully, I suggested split pea soup, and he agreed.

Which I found odd, because split pea soup is very like masoor dal. It is green starchy peas, hulled and split that cook up into an olive-colored puree. They are sweeter than dal tarka; theh may be starchy peas, but there is still a bit of sugar in them.

I think the main attraction to the split pea soup for Zak was the ham. We get ours from the same farmers who provide us with delicious free range organic beef, lamb, goat and the ever-sacred and beloved pork. They cure and smoke the hams themselves and they are meaty, without added water and preservatives. Delectable and filled with smoky richness, having a ham hock and maybe a slice of ham in the refrigerator or freezer from our beloved farmers is like having money in the bank.

The ingredients for split pea soup. Notice the meaty ham hock: the reason for Zak’s love of split pea soup.

And, so, I set forth to make split pea soup.

It starts, as many of my soups and stews do, with leeks. Sliced thinly, and rinsed several times, they go into the pot with some garlic and olive oil to sweat. I am not looking to brown them, I only want them to release their juices and flavors. After the leeks wilt, the heat goes up, and into the pot goes the ham hock, to brown a bit on each side.

Then, in goes some sherry, though I have to confess I used Chinese Shao Hsing wine, as I was out of sherry. My theory is this–if Chinese cookbooks suggest that you can substitute dry sherry for Shao Hsing, then the reverse must be true. I have done it many times to no ill effect, either on my food or myself and none are the wiser. Except now everyone who reads this blog to whom I have admitted my tricksy substitutions.

Thyme, sage, celery seed (I use celery seed instead of celery simply because Zak is not fond of the texture of celery. The seed has all of the flavor and no mushy-stringy-squishy objectionable mouthfeel) and liberal lashings of black pepper go in next, along with cubes of ham. Then the vegetable and chicken broths, and the peas.

One can add a sprinkling of chile flakes at this time, but I seldom do. It can be jarring in pea soup to have a jolt of capsiacin heat. I do admit, however, to adding a sprinkle of chile flakes to my own serving of it once it is done, now and again.

I bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down, cover the pot and it simmers.

At this point, I cut up some baby carrots I had into thick diagonal slices, and peeled and diced a parsnip.

For those who have never eaten a parsnip, you should try one.

It is a member of the family Umbelliferae, which makes it a cousin to the more commonly known carrot. It is also related to dill, fennel, caraway, parsley, coriander, cumin, angelica, celery and hemlock. While all other members in that list I mentioned are wonderfully flavorful, I highly suggest you leave that last one alone, as it is indeed what was used to do in Socrates back in the day for the heinous crime of teaching the youth of Athens think critically.

A parsnip in its natural state, along with one peeled and sliced. Notice the structural similarity to carrots; the flavors are similar as well, though the textures are quite different.

The carrot and parsnip are the two members of that plant family which are commonly grown for their edible roots, but the parsnip has been overshadowed by its more gaily colored and sweeter cousin. Parsnips are quite good for you, being endowed with an impressive amount of folic acid, potassium and calcium, along with smaller amounts of the B complex vitamins, vitamin C and iron. They have a decent amount of fiber in them, too, but they cook up to a nice, smooth, starchy texture. They are sweet, like carrots, but not overwelmingly so–there is a floral, herby green fragrance to parsnips that carrots lack.

They can be cooked in any way one would use a potato: in gratin, roasted, baked, boiled and mashed, (rather like turnips), made into cream soups, and the like. I like adding them into mixed vegetable soups and stews, which is my way of sneaking a new vegetable past inexperienced diners. I do it at the domestic violence shelter all the time, and most of the women have been surprised at how good “Barbara’s Weird Vegetables” taste.

I like them in pea soup–they are sweet, but more complexly flavored than carrots, which adds another level of flavor to the entire dish.

At any rate, once the peas start breaking down into their puree, I added the carrots and parsnip, and the soup was done when the peas turned themselves into a thick “cream” soup.

The soup just after adding the carrots and parsnips. The characteristic sickly green color has already begun to take prominence.

At which point, I added about a tablespoon of fresh, finely minced rosemary and called it done. I served it with a teaspoon of sour cream and another sprinkling of the minced rosemary, alongside Zak’s cardamom bread.

It really wasn’t a pretty meal, what with the rather sallow green complexion the soup ends up with and all, but it was hot, fragrant and comforting, with a deep smokiness from the ham and a lingering sweetness from the peas, carrots and parsnips.

The flavor deepens when you keep it for a few days in the fridge; though the song says you can keep it for nine days, I never do. It doesn’t last so long. The ham makes sure of that for us.


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  1. Yoy know, to read these posts, you’d think I was a fussy eater — I don’t like celery, I prefer split pea to masoor dal, and so on. I’d just like to say, in my own defense, that while I am not as adventurous a gustatory seeker as Barbara, I’m pretty flexible. A situation for which she is significantly responsible; when we met, you could count the vegetables I would eat on one hand. At that point, being fussy would have been a step up.

    On the other hand, I took Barbara to her first Thai restaurant, proved to her (with the help of Legal Seafood) that clam chowder could be good, and have worked to expand my own palate over the years.

    Yes, I’m still wary of chicken feet, and I still don’t much like either celery or cucumbers (it’s not the texture, by the way, it’s the astringent flavor I don’t much care for.) There are a few other things I still don’t care for, but, at this point, they are very much the exception.

    By the same token, Barbara has spoiled me rotten. I imagine the same happens to anyone who cooks well, and anyone lucky enough to live with them: I can’t bring myself to eat crap.

    Of course, I’ve also gained almost forty pounds since I met Barbara, but I was probably twenty or twenty five pounds underweight to start out with. I guess there’s a price for everything.

    Comment by crazyquilt — March 14, 2005 #

  2. Split pea soup – ugly, you say?? Not at all! Yours looks wonderful. (I adore split pea soup!) And that bread on the margin of the photo looks pretty amazing too. I’ve never quite managed to get that lovely ridged pattern effect on top with flour. How did you do that?


    Comment by ejm — March 14, 2005 #

  3. As my beloved Zak pointed out, he has broadened my culinary horizons as much as I have broadened his palate. He introduced me not only to Thai food, but also to Cuban and Nicaraguan food, both of which are fantastic. He also puts up with me doing things like cooking nothing but Indian food for an entire month so I can learn enough to make good on my promise to potential clients that yes, indeed, I do know how to cook Indian food.

    He also will try anything I cook, if only for just a bite, and has learned to love an impressive amount of vegetables over the past fourteen years.

    Elizabeth, that bread is the handiwork of none other than the beloved Zak–he is learning to bake bread, so we can share dinner making duties. The ridges come from letting the round loaf do its final rise in a banneton–a special French basket that is made of coiled rattan or wood that you line thickly with flour. You form the dough into a smooth ball, and set it in the floured banneton and let it rise the last time, then carefully, you invert it onto a baking sheet, and bake it. The pretty spiral design stays intact on the crust.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 14, 2005 #

  4. Aha!! A banneton (I should have known) I have tried that method only once with a largish wicker basket I have. I lined it with a tea towel and now that I dimly recall, the bread did end up having the weaving markings from the towel.

    My problem is that I really like a thick crust and so always spray the risen loaf with water just before it goes in the oven. I used to use a broiling pan filled with water to produce the required steam at the beginning of the bake. Maybe I should try that again.

    I’m very very impressed at Zak’s nerve to flip the bread over onto the peel. I am quite skittery about it (even though I know it works)

    Is that bread plain flour or was there rye and/or whole wheat in it as well? It really looks fantastic.


    Comment by ejm — March 15, 2005 #

  5. Hey, Elizabeth!

    Yeah, the recipe has kamut in it–it is a grain that is a kissing cousin to wheat, and it adds a nice color and a sort of nutty flavor to the crust. However, we learned that if you add too much, it makes the bread a frightful greenish-grey color on the inside. Which is disconcerting….

    Yes, if you want to use a banneton for the shaping of the dough, go ahead and use the pan of water for the crust formation rather than spraying it with water. I don’t think that having the flour on the crust along with water applied directly would be a good thing. I think it might make an unappetizing mess, actually.

    And even as I type, Zak is in the kitchen whipping up a sponge for a loaf of bread to be baked tomorrow.

    I will keep folks posted on how that one goes….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 15, 2005 #

  6. Actually, flour on the crust along with water applied directly is fine. All that happens is that any patterns in the flour are lost. I usually have flour on top of the rising loaf so it won’t stick to the plastic covering as it’s rising. And I’ve sprayed many loaves just before they go in the oven.

    I know that greenish grey colour. It can happen if too much rye flour is added as well.

    I’m really intrigued about the addition of cardamom (one of my favourite spices) to the bread.

    Comment by ejm — March 17, 2005 #

  7. Okay, I wasn’t sure about direct water spray on flour; my largest amount of breadbaking experience comes in professional ovens that release steam at just the right moment to create the shatteringly crisp crust, yadda yadda, badda bing, badda boom.

    After Zak has gotten the recipe consistently down, I will post it; it is based on one from Rose’s Bread Bible, but he is fiddling with it, so by the time it is finished, it will be more like his.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 17, 2005 #

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    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 17, 2005 #

  9. Thank you Barbara. I look forward to seeing it.

    I’ve HEARD of kamut but haven’t actually tried using it. And of course I’ve heard of cardamom as well but have only ever had it in Indian food and an Icelandic cake that I make every Christmas.

    I have made a couple of multigrain breads but mostly I stick to good old wheat flour with the occasional addition of rye. We love French and Italian bread so I have tended to experiment mostly with that. Although… the very first loaf of bread I ever made (one of my favourites) is a rye/molasses/fennelseed, that is still most definitely still in our breadroster.

    I keep meaning to try a Portuguese-style corn bread too. Has Zak ever made that? I bet it would go really well with your splitpea soup too.


    Comment by ejm — March 18, 2005 #

  10. Funny you should ask about the Portugese corn bread; a friend of mine who lives in Portugal just gave me a recipe for same. We had gotten onto a big discussion about corn, because he read my review of the book “The Story of Corn” and he said that it wasn’t grown so much in Portugal anymore and wanted to know how to go about growing it.

    So, I did my farmer’s granddaughter bit and off the top of my head described how to divide a field into three and do crop rotation so that the land would not be depleted catastrophically by corn’s heavy feeding nature.

    In return for my advice, he gave me the recipe, which I decided we would try–after we move.

    Those last three words are becoming a rather predictable refrain in my life these days!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 19, 2005 #

  11. Oooh, I’m very much looking forward to your report on the Portuguese cornbread recipe! (It might go well with all those bean dishes too….)

    Comment by ejm — March 19, 2005 #

  12. Your split pea soup looks fabulous I had never tried leaks in mine! I am eating my much simpler version of split pea soup and it is not as fancy but good I also like a good piece of corn bread along side it!

    Comment by KarenLynn — October 17, 2007 #

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