We're finally having autumnal weather in our corner of Virginia: chilly nights and mild days, enough rain to bring out the color of the leaves and holly berries in our garden, and lots of sunshine giving that golden light that only happens as the year winds its way to a close.
It's perfect weather for the hearty, warming soups that are made with dried beans and peas, especially split green peas. Split pea with ham is a long-time favorite cold weather comfort in our household, and yet I'd actually not made it since we moved.
It was past time to seek out a couple of meaty ham hocks, dig out my favorite bean soup pot, and stir up a batch.
Split Pea Soup
This may seem complicated since the broth is made first, then strained before adding it to the soup, but that extra step is well worth it. And really, broth-making is just a matter of dumping everything in the pot, covering it with water, and walking away from it. It's a good idea to make most broths the day before you need them, especially when it's ham, so that the excess fat has time to settle on the top and solidify, making it simple to skim away.
Serves 4-5 as a main dish, 6 as an appetizer or when accompanied by a sandwich
For the Broth:
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 large carrot, scrubbed under cold running water, cut crosswise into 2-3 pieces
1 large rib celery with leafy top, scrubbed under cold running water
2¼-2½ pounds whole ham hock
1 bay leaf
2-3 slices fresh gingerroot
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
For the Soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil or 3 tablespoons ham or bacon drippings
1 small or ½ large yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
1 large carrot, peeled, trimmed, and diced small
1 large rib celery, washed, strung, and diced small
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 pound green split peas
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 tablespoons instant blending flour
1-1½ cups small diced ham picked from the hocks used for making the broth
Oven-Toasted Croutons (Recipe follows), buttered toast, or crackers
1. Make the broth: Spread the onion in a heavy-bottomed 5-7 quart Dutch oven or stockpot. Cut the pieces of carrot lengthwise in half, then thinly slice and scatter them over the onion. Cut off the leafy top of the celery rib and add it to the pot, then thinly slice the remainder and add it. Add the ham hocks, 3 quarts cold water, the bay leaf, ginger, peppercorns, and a large pinch of salt. Bring it to a boil over medium heat and when it is bubbling steadily, adjust the heat to a slow simmer. Loosely cover and simmer, checking it occasionally to make sure the water level doesn't get too depleted, until the meat on the hocks is very tender, at least 3 and up to 5 hours. You should have about 10-11 cups. Turn off the heat, uncover, and let it cool, then strain it. Pick the meat from the ham hocks and save it, but discard the remaining solids. The broth can be made several days ahead; when completely cooled, cover and refrigerate it and the reserved ham meat separately. The excess fat will solidify on the top of the broth and can be removed and discarded or some of it can be used in making the soup.
2. Put the butter and oil or drippings in a heavy-bottomed 4-5 quart Dutch oven (I use enameled iron) over medium heat. Add the diced onion and sauté, stirring often, until it's translucent and softened but not colored, about 4-5 minutes. Add the carrot and sauté, stirring, about 2 minutes longer, then add the celery and sauté 2-3 minutes longer.
3. Meanwhile, put the peas in a large wire mesh sieve and rinse them under cold running water. Drain well. Add 8 cups of ham broth to the pot and bring it to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Add the peas, a pinch of salt, and a few grindings of pepper and bring it to a boil, stirring often to make sure the peas aren't settling on the bottom of the pan and sticking. Adjust the heat to a steady simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peas are very tender, about 30-45 minutes. Mash a few against the sides of the pot with the back of the spoon as they begin to get really soft until the broth is thick enough to suit you. If the soup is too thick, add a little more ham broth as needed.
4. Stir in the ham and let it return to a steady simmer. Dissolve the flour in a few tablespoons of cold ham broth or water and slowly stir it into the soup. This will stabilize the thickening and keep the mashed peas suspended in the broth. Stir until it thickens, then simmer 3-5 minutes longer, stirring often. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper and let it simmer a minute or two longer, again stirring occasionally.
5. Serve hot garnished with croutons or with them passed separately, or with buttered toast or crackers.
I used to first melt the fat in the baking pan, then add the bread cubes, but have discovered that the croutons crisp better and are a bit less oily if they're toasted until dry but not browned before they're tossed with the butter and oil.
Makes about 4-5 servings, depending on the size of the bread slices
5-6 ½-inch-thick slices firm, homestyle bread or French bread (not a baguette)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 275° F. Meanwhile, cut the bread into 1-inch squares and spread them on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Bake until the bread is dry but not colored, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes. Drizzle it generously with olive oil, then cut the butter into bits and scatter it evenly over the pan. Return the pan to the oven until the butter is melted, about 2-3 minutes.
3. Remove the pan and toss the bread cubes until they're evenly coated with fat, then bake, turning them over a couple of times with a spatula, until they're evenly browned and crisp, about 10-15 minutes longer. If you like, lightly season them with salt while they're warm. Croutons can be made several days ahead. Let them cool completely and then store them in an air-tight tin.