Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Split Pea Soup with Bacon

Split Pea Soup with Bacon

Ham Bone Flavor Without the Ham Bone

All dried beans, legumes, and pulses have their own distinctive flavor, but split peas turn it up to eleven.

And we all know the best split pea soup is one that’s simmered with a ham bone for several hours.  The aroma alone is irresistible; the flavor, incomparable.

But making long-cooked soup takes a while — two hours at the very least, often three.  Who has that much time?  Besides, few people prepare whole (or even half) hams these days, so ham bones are scarce.

What to do when you crave a split pea soup with the flavor of long-cooked ham bone, but don’t have a ham bone handy or enough spare time to cook for three hours?

My Split Pea Soup with Bacon – which includes a secret ingredient – is just the ticket.

Split Pea Soup with Bacon

Recipe: Split Pea Soup with Bacon and Optional Crouton Garnish

The “secret” ingredient in this soup isn’t really secret as much as convenient: It’s ham base. Ham base comes in a jar (which should be refrigerated after opening). Mix it with water and it makes stock that is almost as good as you’ll get using a ham bone.

Ham base is readily available at many supermarkets (in the soup aisle) or online. For more information about using and sourcing soup/stock bases see Stock Excuses.

I prepare this soup in a 4- or 6-quart pot with a wide base (the wide base makes it easier to sauté onions and other vegetables in the cooking pot). This recipe yields 6 – 10 servings.

  • ½ pound sliced bacon cut into ½-inch pieces 
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, diced fine (1¼ – 1 ¾ cups; exact measurement not critical)
  • 2 – 3 carrots washed, peeled, and diced fine
  • 1 – 2 ribs celery washed, peeled, and diced fine
  • 2 – 4 cloves garlic diced or sliced 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (possibly optional; see note)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1½ teaspoon dried thyme (or to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 pound dried split peas, picked over and rinsed
  • 8 – 10 cups water (see notes)
  • ~2 tablespoons ham base (to taste; see notes for substitutions)

Ingredients for Optional Croutons

  • 3 – 4 slices of bread diced into cubes
  • 2 – 4 tablespoons olive oil (or melted butter; or a mix)
  • 2 – 3 cloves of garlic diced fine (optional)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried herb of choice (optional; I like thyme)
split peas with diced carrots, celery, and bacon in ramekins
Raw Split Peas with Diced Carrots, Celery, and Ham

  1. If preparing optional croutons, preheat oven to 350° Farenheit.
  2. Prep the bacon, onion, garlic, carrots, and celery.
  3. Place bacon in cold frying pan. Place over medium heat to sauté until cooked to your preferred degree of crispiness.
  4. Meanwhile, place 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, add oil and then add onion, garlic, carrots, and celery. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook until soft but not brown (about 5 minutes).
  5. Meanwhile, pick over and rinse split peas (see note).
  6. When onion is soft, add thyme and red pepper flakes and cook for 1 minute. Then add split peas and water, and bring to a simmer. Add ham base.
  7. When bacon is ready, remove from pan with slotted spoon and add to split peas (may add a tablespoon or two of bacon fat if you desire). Continue to simmer soup until done (40 – 60 minutes, depending on how old and dry the split peas are).
  8. While soup is cooking, prepare croutons using directions in the Fast Homemade Croutons Recipe. Total prep time for croutons is about 5 minutes, cooking time is 15 – 25 minutes, so you have plenty of time to make these while the soup simmers.
  9. When the soup is finished cooking, you can smush the split peas up if you like (use a stick blender to liquefy to desired consistency or mash them against the side of the pot with a spoon). I often leave most of them whole.
  10. Ready to serve! Garnish with home-made croutons, if you’re using them.

  • If you wish, you can sauté the bacon in the same pot you will use to cook the soup. When the bacon is cooked, you can remove it and then sauté the onions, garlic, carrots, and celery in the bacon fat. In this case, you won’t need the olive oil.
  • Peppered bacon (if you can find it) adds a nice zing.
  • If you happen to have some packaged ham on hand, dice up a cup or so and substitute it for the bacon. Many sausages also combine well with split peas.
  • I like garlic and enjoy the blast of biting into a big piece of it, so I always slice my garlic. Dice it if you prefer a more subtle garlic experience.
  • Split peas, like lentils, don’t need to be soaked, but they do need to be sorted (to eliminate pebbles or dirt that may have strayed into the package). I find sorting is easiest if I pour the split peas into a pile on one end of a sheet pan (the type with one-inch sides). I just scoot each split pea from the pile to the other end of the pan, removing any foreign matter I spot along the way. Then I dump them into a strainer, quickly rinse them with my sink’s vegetable sprayer, and they’re ready for the pot.
  • Ham base is what gives this soup its “ham bone” flavor, and I recommend it. For more information about soup (stock) bases, see Stock Excuses. You could also use canned chicken broth, or just water (the soup will be good but will lack a dimension).
  • The 8 to 10 cups of water specified in the list of ingredients requires some judgment on your part. If you like your soup thick, use less water. If you prefer a more liquid consistency, use more. If the soup reduces too much as you cook, simply add more water. Taste along the way to see if you need to add a smidgen more ham base.
  • Even without the ham bone, split pea soup takes a good hour to make when you factor in both the preparation and the cooking time (although much of the cooking can take place unattended). This means it may not be a viable week-night dinner option for many people. A good solution is to make this soup ahead of time. You can prepare it the evening before you intend to serve it, and refrigerate overnight. And of course cooking it on the weekend and using it later in the week is also an option (it freezes quite well).
  • Potatoes make a great addition to this soup. Simply wash, peel, and dice some Yukon Gold, red skin, or other “boiling” potatoes and add them to the soup when you add the split peas and liquid.
OK, Not the Prettiest Soup

There are many, I know, who profess to dislike split peas.  In fact, this is a food that lots of people say they “hate.”   I’m not quite sure why that is, since I don’t think it’s the flavor that turns them off.

I sometimes hear people complain about the texture of cooked split peas, saying they’re too “sludgy.”  This problem usually results from letting too much cooking liquid evaporate while the soup simmers, leaving a too-dense soup.  Solution?  Just add more liquid.

And then there’s the appearance of the soup.  I must admit that split pea isn’t necessarily the prettiest soup around.  Maybe that’s what really offends some people.  Solution?  I dunno – maybe just inhale the soup’s blissful aroma?  If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite, I don’t know what is.

Bring on the A/C

Split peas can be cooked in a variety of ways (yellow split peas figure prominently in some Indian dals).  But to me, soup is the ideal expression of the split pea essence.  I enjoy the flavor so much that I like to make this soup year round.

Many people associate the hearty flavor and sturdy nature of split pea soup with cold weather — and it is ideal winter fare.  But the soup works well any time the temperature is a bit cool.  It can be perfect this time of year.  Though the days have been warming up here in St. Louis, we have plenty of chilly evenings ahead until spring is in full bloom.

Still, summer isn’t far off.  What to do then?

Well, I’m reminded of Richard Nixon, who loved roaring fires.  He reportedly enjoyed them so much that he’d insist on lighting a great blaze in his fireplace even in the middle of August.  To counteract the heat, he’d crank up (well, crank down, but you know what I mean) the air conditioning.  He took a lot of guff for it in the press.

This summer, if I get a craving for split pea soup that I can’t resist, you might find me nudging the A/C thermostat down just a bit.

And I don’t want to hear any guff about this.   I’m looking at you, Mrs. Kitchen Riffs.

split pea soup with crouton garnish in a ramekin


Anonymous said...

Hi! Thanks so much for this great recipe, making it right now. I've used it for two years. I reserve some crisp bacon bits for a topping, and by the way yum! I really feel compelled now to comment, because everyone in my family loves this soup so much. I feel even more compelled to comment because you posted it on my birthday a few years back--March 23rd is a great day for split pea soup! Thanks again, Jess

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Jess, glad you enjoyed the recipe! How fun that this was posted on your birthday! And I'm glad you enjoyed the "gift.: ;-) Thanks for taking time to comment and let me know you like the recipe.