My favorite soup has always been split pea. As a kid I could eat a large can of Campbell’s chunky, with the bits of ham, potato, and carrot. It’s remained my favorite even in adulthood, though in recent years buying the stuff in cans has been, well, no longer an option.
But keeping kosher changed my attitude toward this as toward so many other foods I loved but couldn’t buy anymore: Don’t give up. Learn to make it yourself. (And if you can’t make it yourself, find something else that satisfies.)
I’ve experimented with the recipe over a number of years and come up with one that echoes exactly the texture and richness of the stuff I remember from childhood. This is at least a half-day affair, so for people who work outside the home, making it on the weekend and freezing it in meal-sized containers is a wise choice.
About buying split peas: I know they’re dried, but buy them in a store that has a good deal of turnover. I get them from a Yemenite couple who have a popular legumes, rice, and spice stall in the Beit Shemesh shuk. I once bought them from an old man with a stall elsewhere in the shuk, who had very little to sell and none of it very appealing looking. The soup came out lousy.
The other things about split peas is that they must be soaked—the longer, the better. I sort them (pulling out small stones, withered peas, and anything else foreign I don’t like the look of) and soak them at least 8 hours. However, I read recently that soaking 20 hours is optimal. I’m making a batch today that I’ll have soaked for 24 hours. Regardless, the longer they soak, the less time they take to cook.
The one thing I miss from the canned stuff is the smoky flavor imparted by the ham. Pea soup is filling, but it benefits from a salty component. Nowadays I serve it with Bacos at the table, or slice and sauté vegetarian hot dogs or sausage to serve on the side as well. For those who don’t want the smoothness of the soup interrupted by these things, a friend once recommended adding chipotle flavoring to the soup. Chipotle peppers are smoked, but still spicy. For those who want smoky and love spicy, I recommend making the soup according to the regular recipe, and serving it at the table with McIlhenny’s Chipotle Tabasco or pureed chipotle peppers (they come in a small can, in adobo sauce) in a small dish for those who would like to add them to their own bowl. I don’t recommend adding the hot spices directly to the soup pot since I’m not sure what will happen to the flavor over time (store in the refrigerator or freezer).
When reheating starchy foods like potato-leek or pea soup, use low flame. Medium or high flame often result in the soup burning or sticking to the bottom of the pan. Heat gently and stir frequently to prevent this happening.
One more thing about pea soup: As it sits, it continues to absorb water. You may find after refrigerating or freezing a portion of soup that it has thickened even more. If this is the case, simply add small amounts of water to the soup as you reheat it until the desired consistency is reached, stirring well to incorporate the water.
If you’re making a batch the size I make, use a very large stock pot. Here are the ingredients I use to make a huge batch for freezing. Halve the recipe if you wish.
2-3 onions, finely diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 sticks celery, chopped
2 kg split peas
12 pints water
1 bag bouquet garni (optional; could contain parsley, thyme, bay leaf)
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
4 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite-sized chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
When the peas have been soaked and rinsed well, pour a few tablespoons of oil into the bottom of the pot—just enough almost to cover it. Heat the oil to medium and add onions. Stir to coat with oil, then turn the heat down to low and cook slowly, covered, about 15 minutes, stirring 2-3 times to prevent sticking.
Add garlic and celery and stir to incorporate. Cook another 5 minutes or so.
Add split peas and water to the pot. Stir well and raise the heat to high. Bring to a boil, stir, then lower heat again. Cook covered on low flame, stirring every half hour or so, until peas begin to disintegrate. When visiting the pot to stir, skim off any foam that has formed on the surface. (For well-soaked peas, this might be 2-4 hours. I have sometimes cooked them for 5-6 hours if they were soaked for less time.)
When peas are soft and coming apart, and the soup as a whole is thickening, blend. (I use an immersion blender—so handy. If you use a regular blender, it is probably good to let the soup cool a while before transferring portions of it safely to the blender.) When soup is blended, return to the pot and add carrots and potatoes. Cook on medium heat 35-45 minutes, until carrots and potatoes are cooked.
Salt and pepper to taste. Be careful not to over-salt; add salt more gradually as you taste, until the desired flavor is achieved.
With a salad and garlic bread, this makes a wonderful warming meal in a cold Sukkah. (Or in our case, a fall Friday-night meal.)