Split Pea Soup with Barley and Colonel Newsom's Ham

Split Peas, Wooden SpoonIt's February. Our terrible winter weather has yielded to a soft rain at 57 degrees. Crocus foliage spiked above the leaf cover yesterday. It's time, says the Man At My House, to eat up all the food we preserved for winter. True. So this leads to split pea soup, since making it requires that I clear out of the freezer a few of the wondrous Seasoning Chunks I bought from Colonel Bill Newsom's Country Ham in November.

Soup Queen I am not. Although children have tried to help with serious soup cookbooks, excellent soups still elude me, with three exceptions:

  1. Homemade from scratch cream of tomato, no recipe, just a system of homemade white sauce (bechamel) thinned with equal parts of home-grown, home-canned, dead-ripe, spectacular tomato juice from beautiful Wayne County. (Thank you, kind/handsome/talented/hardworking bro!)
  2. Curried or spiced squash/mushroom soup from just about any recipe -- but there must be a recipe. Like this one or this one, which may have been the first one, or if I need a quick Tastebud Trip to my heart's other home in the Republic of the Philippines, this one, silked with coconut milk.
  3. Split pea with barley and, when we are lucky, as we were this week, real smoked bacon or country ham; no recipe, just an all day system.

The system:

  1. Use bright green organic dried split peas.
  2. Look over them and remove trash, especially those teeth-breaking little rocks; rinse with cool water.
  3. Put the washed peas in a large stockpot. Cover with water or homemade stock equal to about 10 times the volume of the peas: 1 cup of dried peas, 10 cups water or homemade stock.
  4. Add Seasoning Chunks, country ham scraps, a country ham hock or bone, or some cooked smoked country bacon. I use about 1/2 cup of seasoning for each cup of dry split peas. Too much seasoning takes the fun out of the soup's subtle sweetness, so go easy.
  5. Cook over low heat for most of the morning, until the split peas are soft and lose their individuality. The peas will hug the bottom of the stock pot in a rough mush. The liquid above them will seem thin and gruel-ish. Keep the low heat going - from now on.
  6. Fish out the seasoning chunks or ham scraps, if you are using them. Put them on a plate to cool.
  7. In a skillet or saucepan, sauté a large chopped onion in some olive oil. As the onion caramelizes a bit, clean and dice four or five large carrots. (Or one, or two.) Add the carrots to the soup. Add the cooked onions with their olive oil and browned bits. If you really want to, add some diced potatoes. You may also add a bay leaf and some thyme or other herbs.
  8. Cook another hour or so.
  9. Remove all fat and bone from your meat scraps, and tear or cut the remaining meaty bits into tiny pieces. Return these pieces to the soup.
  10. Look through and rinse about 1/2 cup barley. "Hulled" (healthier, requires longer cooking) or "Pearled" (still plenty delicious).
  11. Add the barley to the soup, and cook at least another hour. Stir more frequently now to avoid sticking.
  12. How is the texture? You want the soup thickened, but not thick, something like the consistency of nearly melted ice cream -- with carrot and onion add-ins.
  13. Check the salt level, and add black peppers and other heat agents, if you like them.
  14. Eat!

Be amazed at how thick the somewhat runny soup becomes when it cools. The cooled leftovers freeze perfectly -- though that goes against the project of clearing the freezer of winter food. I like split pea soup well enough to eat at least in three seasons, and maybe in summer, too.