After all, I make soup often, once a week, sometimes twice. I eat it more often, once a day, sometimes twice. Three bowls are not unheard of, nor are four, but since frice is apparently not considered proper English, we'll leave it at thrice. And that I eat a lot of soup.
Thing is, there are two types of soups in this world. There are discrete soups, the sort you set out to make, with fixed ingredients and brief instructions and some semblance of structure. Potato leek, say, or Tom Kha Gai, or in summer, cucumber or gingered beet. Even our beloved go-to chili, which takes a short morning, but nothing more, and always the same eleven items. Neat, tidy, turn-key soups.
I make these. I love these. I rely on these, often.
Then there are the other ones, the rambling unwieldy ones. Soups with no obvious beginnings, no perky, trim, tied-up-in-a-bow endings. That take other meals as starting points. That can only exist in ellipses (...soups...). Soups peppered with hyphens and ranges and words like "leftover", "optional", "to taste". Soups which may seem ambiguous at best (two carrots or four?), utterly presumptuous at worst (what 4 cups leftover roast?!). Slippery, shifty, imprecise soups.
These are the soups that evolve in the making, pinch of this, smidge of that. So many good soups, so much good cooking—maybe so much good, period—plays out this way, from the hip. Improvising. In the moment. In spite of Dora. (Best thing I've read all week. Arguably best post title, ever. Shipoopi!)
They're the sorts of soups wherein when you hear "leeks", you know onions, shallots, scallions will do. All in the allium family. Wherein carrots can be doubled, or sweet potatoes omitted, or both replaced by butternut. Parsnips welcome. Turnips might be nice. Bag the spuds. Add rutabagas. Pantry as guide, über alles.
They're the sorts of soups more easily explained in person than in type. That instantly makes sense when you're in the same room, rubbing shoulders, side by side. Screens seem to be our new side by side. They're amazing at that, in many ways. I don't know yet if they're amazing at this.
The trouble has always seemed to me that these soups don't belong to words. Trying to stuff them into ingredients and instructions, man, it's awkward. Elephant into tutu territory. Print, in all its emphatic black and white, does a disservice to such soups, implying sharp edges and crisp corners where in fact there are only curves, soft and yielding. They don't conform well to cups, quarts, and teaspoons, because they are, by nature, open-ended. Democratic, flexible, generous.
Which, if you ask me, makes them worthy of discussion, right there.
For ill-suited though they may be to recipes, they fit exquisitely days, bellies, crisper drawers. Because these soups are the seams between meals, the stitches that fasten yesterday's supper to tomorrow's lunch. They bind Sunday's roast to Tuesday's Beef Barley, connect the dots between disparate dinners. They call on the orphans and odd-lots in our fridge, the half-head of parsley, the lonely celery, the forgotten carrots, left for limp. They honor our drippings, and trimmings, and bones, which turn water into stock, better even than wine.
And what's more? Along the way, they take this hodgepodge, and make sense of it all.
(Not unlike the hodgepodge of a week, making sense of itself in retrospect. I had little notion what I'd find, when I looked at the week's outtakes. A week that has felt rather scattershot, as we leave behind winter break, breaks and colds, and creakily, gratefully, find our groove. Turns out it's the same old January delights. Scrubbing [preferably with pink-kerchiefed pirates]. Sorting [old art, older spices, new gifts]. Feasting [rice, tofu, shiitakes and bok]. Rushing headlong into resolutions. I didn't always love resolutions, but boy oh boy, I adore them now. Maybe because mine include "bake more cakes". [Week One: Two down. Not bad, 2013.]
Delectable sense, and dinner, besides. Just not prim and proper copy.
It is January, and cold, and time for deep comfort, and we can't let silly old language get between us and some very good soup. We'll muddle through.
All of which is to say: can we talk split pea soup? Light, thin, rich, meaty, savory split pea, which was good, very good, and one such soup. I ad hoc'd it from the Christmas ham bone, building and tweaking as I went, only to find, as I ate the first bowl, it's the split pea I've hankered after for years. I ate bowl after bowl after bowl after bowl, alternately amazed and overjoyed to have finally found it. I'm putting it here, in all its ellipses, so as to be able to find it again.
Here is why I want to remember:
I have always loved the idea of split pea soup; rarely, the reality. And I've cooked my way through many realities. None were truly bad, mind you; just all pretty good, none genuinely great. They all, to me, tasted too stodgy, too stiff, a little too Pease porridge hot. A little, for lack of a better word, beige. Add to that their monotony—beyond a few carrots, and the odd bit of ham, most pea soups are all pea, all the time—and I knew just exactly how it wound up nine days old and cold.
I felt like throwing up my hands in defeat. I felt a little like Frosty, down there.
Still. I believed in split pea, knew it could do it, kept whispering Little Engine encouragements into pots. I kept at it, trying out different takes, taking away what I liked from each. From Moosewood, way back in my college kitchen, I learned the beauty of caramelizing carrots, celery and onions, low and slow. Also, the spunking-up effect of a good slosh of vinegar at the end. From my friend Martine, I learned to love the Dutch angle, with plenty of pork and soft tender potatoes. From Emily Franklin, I learned to finish a bowl with "fresh" (frozen) peas, plus parmesan. And from there, I improvised, madly.
I pumped up the veg, extra carrots, sweet potatoes, because I wanted more interesting bits. I discarded advice to add veg near the end, twenty minutes before done, for al dente tender. Instead, I added them all early, not just a mirepoix but a mountain, because I've realized I like the results. That roots and stock both benefit twice, first from that extra early caramelization, finally from all that time spent rubbing elbows. Roots cooked an hour or more in broth go velvet-edged, a little bit plush, and entirely drunk on the stock they swim in.
About that stock. It's nothing more than water, amplified by a few flavor bombs. I used our ham bone, as I always do, but earlier and meatier than is my custom. From my reading up on Ertesoupe, I realized I'd been a Scrooge, that I needed not only the bone but a good heap of ham, besides. To pump things up further, the meat went in with the veg, to render its fat and crisp up its edges and generally perfume the whole pot. Knowing how well parmesan played with the finished soup, and how beautifully rinds flavor a bland broth, I figured it couldn't hurt to toss in a few crusts. So I did. Have mercy. Anything but beige. Here—well, a simmery hour or two from here—was that savory, deep, lip-smacking umami every other split pea I'd met was missing.
The bratwurst probably helped. A pound was added near end. The two porks worked in tandem, one smoky, one spiced, to fill the pot with pomp, circumstance, substance. Vegetarian this split pea is not (though I think with a doubling of parmesan rinds, it well could be). But it is meat the way I most like it, honored to the end, made the most of. Diced small, it's everywhere, abundant, and yet wildly outnumbered by broth and veg, two pounds of pork to eight-plus quarts of soup. Yum.
And soup it is, strange as that sounds. One last note about that water. There's a lot of water. Six quarts of water. Which translates to twenty four cups of water. More, to taste. (I used thirty two. I know; I measured twice. Also, two pots, to accomodate overflow.) I realized, finally, this time around, that what I wanted was soup. Split peas, like all legumes, expand tremendously in the cooking. The ratio of peas:water in most recipes yields something far closer to stew, thick, stiff, nursery rhyme stuff. So, I just kept adding water.
And adding. And adding. And, lo! I had soup! And something wonderful, besides. It turns out that when you add enough water to dried peas, they relax into themselves, dissolve, melt. The end result is not only soup-ish and slurpable, but downright creamy. Double yum.
It looks dull. Possibly dreadful. It isn't either, not even close. But I left it ungarnished, unvarnished, humble, both in the interest of honesty, and because that's how I often eat it. The peas and parmesan at the end are fantastic, the one delivering bright pops of sweet, the other an unexpected, excellent bling. They're also unnecessary. This split pea stands alone. And if we're to talk soup, we must talk straight. And sometimes, I want a piping hot bowl yester-minute, no time to grate cheese and no thanks to peas andpleasepassanapkin,thanks! Slurp.
Good soup depends on good ham. I'm fond of Niman Ranch hams, for their tremendous flavor, texture, and farming practices. They also have a lovely "little ham", around two pounds, that would work well here. Just leave out the bone (or beg one off your butcher, who often has oodles, for pocket change). I add peas straight from the freezer; the heat of the soup perfectly warms the peas, and the cold of the peas cools the burn off the soup.
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 chubby leeks, well rinsed, quartered, white and pale green parts thinly sliced
1 very meaty ham bone, meat removed, diced 1/2" OR 4 cups good ham, diced 1/2"
5 large carrots, quartered lengthwise, diced 1/2"
3 stalks celery, minced
6 small yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed, diced 1/2"
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled, diced 1/2"
6-8 quarts water
2 cups (around 1 pound) dried split peas
4-8 ounces parmesan rinds (optional)
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon plus 1 Tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 pound bratwurst or kielbasa, diced 1/2"
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried thyme
freshly ground pepper
2-3 tablespoons cider vinegar, + more to taste
petite frozen peas (optional)
freshly grated parmesan (optional)
Pull out your largest, heaviest soup pot, set it on your biggest burner, and slick the bottom in olive oil. Set over medium heat, slice your leeks, and add them to the shimmery oil with a teaspoon of kosher salt. Give them a lazy stir, now and again, as you go about the business of ham. If using a ham bone, carve the meat from the bone, then chop the meat into a rough 1/2" dice, removing any great veins of gristle, but leaving on the sweet fat cap along the top. (This fat will render in the heat, adding flavor, and helping to caramelize the upcoming mountain of vegetables. If using boneless ham, simply dice, knowing extra olive oil may be needed if the ham has no fat to speak of.)
After ten minutes, when leeks are limp and translucent, add your chopped ham, and give all a good stir. Go about preparing the next 4 veg (carrots, celery, potatoes, sweet potatoes), in turn, peeling, chopping and adding, as you go. Stir with each addition and keep heat at a low-ish medium; this allows each new vegetable to give off its moisture and caramelize gently, building flavor and sweetness along the way. After adding and stirring sweet potatoes, give them a final ten minutes to caramelize, then add your water, 6 quarts (24 cups) for a thicker, porridge-style soup, 8 (32 cups) quarts for a thinner, cream-style soup consistency. This is a lot of water. If need be, pull out a second, small pot at this point, to accomodate overflow. I do this all the time. Bear in mind, also, you can always this the soup further, later.
Add dried split peas and bay leaves, as well as the ham bone and/or parmesan rinds, if using. Turn heat to high, bring soup to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle burble. Simmer soup, 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally, until split peas are tender to the point of dissolve. At the 1 hour mark, irrespective of the integrity of the peas, add the pound of minced kielbasa, and Tablespoon of salt. Stir, and continue to cook if needed, or simmer another 15 minutes, if peas are ready. (Total cooking time will depend on the age of your peas. My most recent peas dissolved within the hour; I've had other batches take upwards of three.)
Once split peas have collapsed completely into the broth, and sausage has simmered for at least 15 minutes, add the dried marjoram and thyme, crushing them between your fingers as you do, and 2 Tablespoons of vinegar, stirring well to combine. Let meld a few minutes, then taste your soup. Are the flavors forward, and bold, and bright? Probably not quite yet. Gauge consistency first, adding more water if you wish it thinner. Then, taste and adjust seasoning. You will almost surely need more salt (ham and sausage vary greatly in salt content), upwards of 1 Tablespoon. Add in half-teaspoons, giving a stir and a minute between additions, and tasting as you go. You may wish for another Tablespoon of vinegar, which doesn't add sour so much as brightness and depth. I've been known to add sherry, to good effect. More herbs may be wanted. Taste, taste, taste. Continue along these lines, until everything sings.
Eat piping hot, topped by curls of parmesan, a spoonful of frozen peas, or nothing at all. This soup keeps very well for 5 days, freezes like a dream, and reheats beautifully.