Monday, December 13, 2010

Chasing winter's chill: Split Pea Soup

I thought I hated split pea soup, that sludgy, tasteless olive green goo studded with leftover nuggets of ham, so thick a spoon would stand right up in it. I was absolute in my detestation until one day 20 years ago when a coworker at the Kennedy Center convinced me to buy it from the Watergate deli, saying that it was the best version she'd ever tried. So, the next time it was featured, I bought a cup.
She was so right. It tasted like fresh vegetables, with no soggy lumps of ham and a smooth, velvety texture. I set out to recreate it at home, and have been making it this way ever since:

1 pound split peas. (Don't grab a dusty old bag from 1995. Look for a store with some turnover. The peas should be bright green and relatively unbroken.)

6 -8 cups of water, or half water and half chicken stock if you want a deeper flavor.

1-2 t. salt

2 medium yellow onions, diced

3 carrots, diced

2 T. olive oil

1 bay leaf

freshly ground pepper

About 5 allspice berries (optional, but they add an intriguing flavor)

1/2 t. dried thyme

1 heaping cup of high quality frozen petite peas

Turn the split peas out into a mesh strainer and pick out anything that looks weird. Transfer to a large soup pot and add 6 cups of water or stock.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt. Cook slowly over medium heat until softened, then add to the soup pot.

Add the bay leaf, allspice berries, thyme, and a few grinds of pepper to the soup pot. Turn on the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, reduce the heat and cook for about 45 minutes, adding more water if it starts to get thick and sludgey looking. Add the frozen peas during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Fish out the allspice berries and the bay leaf. Serve very hot, with a couple of croutons floated on top. It will serve at least 6 generously, with leftovers for lunch the next day. Add a little water before reheating.

For a heartier soup, add 2 cloves of chopped fresh garlic to the sauteed vegetables. Once the vegetables are in the pot and everything is simmering, dice 1/2 a pound of kielbasa and cook it slowly until the fat is rendered and the kielbasa cubes are browned. Add to the pot when adding the peas.

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