Soup is not a four letter word. I mean, sure, it is, but for those of you who consider soup a meal of last resort, the Stout Sprouts and I are here to try and change your mind.
It’s hard to hate soup, but those of you who do have probably had a bad soup experience at some point in your life. That’s because there are — in my opinion — only two major categories of soup:
- Showstopper Soups (aka, soups requiring a guest list and grocery run in order to make), and
- Stretch-the-Budget Soups (aka, soups made from leftovers, normally reserved for immediate family)
One of these can quickly lead you down the path of culinary disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing, and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to realize which one it is.
Maybe someone close to you tried just a little too hard to eek one more meal out of the previous night’s dinner. For me, that experience came, of all places, at a corporate cafeteria where chicken chow mein was on the menu one day and then later that week — and without much additional culinary creativity — chicken chow mein soup suddenly appeared. Leftovers can be great, but in my mind’s eye I envisioned the whole chafing dish of day-old chicken chow mein sliding into a simmering stock pot in preparation for the next day’s soup station. I couldn’t bring myself to give it a try.
Despite this experience, I still think you can make a great stretch-the-budget soup that you won’t be embarrassed to serve to anyone. Take, for instance, split pea soup with ham.
If I have to be totally honest, this is probably my favorite Easter dish, even though we don’t serve it on Easter Sunday. Sure, I like a good baked ham, and the scalloped potatoes and roasted asparagus we have with it nearly every year are both comforting and delicious. But the real swoon-worthy moment comes several days later when we sauté onions, celery, carrots (loads of carrots) and garlic and then simmer them with dried split peas and the meaty leftover ham bone.
Though I categorize this as a “Stretch-the-Budget Soup,” the only “leftover” part about it is the ham…which, if you don’t happen to have any waiting in the refrigerator can be substituted with a meaty ham hock and some cubed ham steak. If you celebrate Easter and did so with a ham, it’s high time to use the last of it before it spoils. If you were resourceful and froze the leftover ham bone, this is the perfect dish in which to use it.
The dried peas that become the binder in this soup go from being hard little pebbles of a legume to being soft and creamy with little more than an hour of cooking. Easy to grow and easy to store, dried peas have been a food staple since the Greeks and Romans cultivated them around 500 BC. They are high in protein, fiber, iron and the B vitamins (thiamine and folate in particular) while being low in fat. Extremely economical, dried split peas and versions of the soup — or pottage/porridge, as some know it — into which they can be made is traditional in countries throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Dried split peas come in two varieties — green or yellow — that simply reflect slight genetic differences. The yellow color is dominant over green, though green dried split peas are the kind most people associate with split pea soup.
I was a little worried the Stout Sprouts would turn up their noses at our undeniably green version. Neither of them did. Daughter 1 positively loves it, and Daughter 2 has finished her serving on two separate evenings now. There are lots of steps in which they can get involved, from assembling the ingredients, to sorting through and removing any small stones or sticks from the split peas, to measuring the water, to shredding the ham, to picking the leaves off the herbs. I assigned myself the dicing and cooking, but their assistance kept things moving along.
This soup is so good that we made it twice within the last week — once with the leftover Easter ham bone, and the second time with a smoked ham hock from Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, whose heritage-breed Berkshire pigs subsist on a diet of leftovers themselves: their meals consist of the whey that is the byproduct of the cheese making for which Cherry Grove is locally well known. Both soups were fantastic, with very slight flavor variations based on the different pork products we used.
To encourage the girls to eat their meals we served their portions in little bread boules…sourdough rolls with the tops cut off and some of the soft bread removed to make bowls. This, in their opinion, made a tasty soup even tastier. You can serve yours this way or just ladle into soup bowls and splash with a bit of white balsamic vinegar (my favorite) or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
If you like your “pease porridge hot” — or just like nursery rhymes and good food, in no particular order — give this economical soup a try. Sure, it stretches the dollar, but it does so in a way that will redeem bad cafeteria meals of years’ past. It got The Stout Sprout seal of approval after all!
Split Pea Soup with Ham
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
Pinch of Kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 pound dried split peas, picked over for small sticks or debris, and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (from 1 – 2 large sprigs of fresh thyme)
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, minced (from 2 – 3 large sprigs of fresh oregano)
8 cups of water
Large ham bone from a baked ham or 1 – 2 smoked meaty ham hocks
2 cups shredded or diced ham* (from leftover baked ham or ham steaks)
Additional Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Splash of freshly-squeezed lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar or cider vinegar, for serving (optional)
Serve in a sourdough bread boule or accompanied by some good crusty bread
Begin by melting the butter over medium heat in a large Dutch oven. When butter begins to foam, add the onions, carrots, celery and a pinch of salt and sauté until softened and slightly browned, about 10 – 15 minutes. Add the garlic, stir well to incorporate, and then add the dried split peas, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, water, and ham bone or ham hocks.
Cover and bring to a simmer. Lower heat and maintain a simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the peas are not sticking to the bottom. Remove the lid, increase the heat slightly and allow to simmer, uncovered, for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the ham bone or ham hocks to a clean plate, stir the soup well, and allow it to simmer, with occasional stirring, until it is thick and creamy (this may take another 10 – 30 minutes, depending on how quickly the water evaporates). While the soup is simmering, allow the ham bone or ham hocks to cool to a temperature at which they can be handled. Remove any ham still on the bone, shredding it into bite-sized pieces, and add it to the soup along with the two cups* of shredded or cubed leftover ham.
Taste the soup and correct for seasonings. You will probably not need to add much salt, if any, because of the saltiness of the ham.
When the soup has reached your desired thickness, remove it from the heat and serve immediately in the bread boules or in heated soup bowls accompanied by a slice of crusty bread. Allow diners to add a splash of vinegar or squeeze of fresh lemon juice if they wish.
Serves: 6 – 8
*Note: if using a particularly meaty ham hock or ham bone, you may choose to reduce the amount of additional ham you add into the soup from two cups to one, or even less. A meaty ham hock may contain nearly enough ham to adequately flavor the soup.
Kid rating: four stars, pushing four-and-a-half. I was thrilled that our Sprouts both enjoyed this. Serving it IN bread boules was probably a little over the top, but it guaranteed that they tried it, and once they did they were hooked. Daughter 1 cleared her plate. Twice. Daughter 2 ate the soup, but not the boule. Go figure. Neither girl wanted vinegar or lemon juice with theirs though this doesn’t surprise me. While I find it enhances and brightens the taste, I’m happy they enjoyed their portions the way they liked them.
Parent rating: five stars. It isn’t often we make the same dish twice within a week. This is one soup we all liked enough to make that possible. I’m really digging the different tastes we enjoyed from different hams…not profoundly different, but subtle, and good. My husband and I agreed that the version with the ham hock was better seasoned overall, smoky and salty without being overly so. I also load our split pea soup up with carrots, which bring additional sweetness. I almost can’t have too many carrots in this soup. Yum.