Pease Porridge Hot: Split Pea Soup

If you are a man lucky enough to have had a childhood like mine, you may remember the joys of slapping hands with the girl next to you as a gaggle of kids played “Pease Porridge Hot” during recess at school. And though I can’t speak from personal experience, many a fortunate woman may have a similar memory of singing the song over and over again and dancing in a circle until everyone broke into laughter when the last line changed to “Spell that in four letters. T-H-A-T!!” Happy times indeed.

Pease porridge or pease pudding, as our British friends call this delicious soup, has been around for a long time. Wild peas are a legume native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea, but wild peas were one of the plants domesticated during the neolithic revolution sometime around 12,000 years ago. Much later, the Greeks and Romans enjoyed peas as a tender fresh vegetable in the spring and as a reliable food that would keep for years when the seeds were mature and dry.

The dry seeds are boiled in water to make pease porridge. While it was probably pretty bland, pease porridge provided fiber, protein, important vitamins and minerals, and enough carbohydrates to give people the energy they needed during the long winters when food was in short supply. And as Reay Tannahill observes in her book, Food in History, “Pease pudding in the pot, nine days old” suggests that the “dish had keeping qualities which endeared it more to the housewife than to her family.”

Today, dietitians recommend that we include peas in our diets. In fact, the Mayo Clinic web site says that legumes, which includes beans and peas, “are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available.” Besides including lots of good vitamins and minerals, peas are low on the Glycemic Index, which makes them especially attractive to people with type 2 diabetes.

Many dietitians also point out that split peas have almost no fat, but you can fix that shortcoming by following this recipe for split pea soup. There’s nothing like a good smoked pork hock or meaty ham bone to add some flavor and fat to a pot of bland legumes. And actually, you won’t be adding a lot of fat per serving, so don’t let the Health Food Police scare you.

INGREDIENTS:

1 lb. split green peas
1 smoked pork hock (about 2 lbs.)
Enough water to cover the pork hock
2 beef bouillon cubes or 2 tsp. instant bouillon
2 medium potatoes
4 medium carrots
1 medium onion
1 bay leaf
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
Salt and pepper to taste

PROCEDURE: If you start with one of those country smoked pork hocks that looks a little dusty, rinse it off. Put it in a soup pot and cover it with water. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot and simmer the hock for about three hours. Jerri always says, “You are cooking out all the flavor!” to which I reply, “That’s what I am trying to do.”

Besides extracting the flavor, the long slow simmer helps release gelatin from the bones and skin, which adds to the richness of the soup, so keep it simmering for at least two and a half hours. Add water if necessary to keep the meat covered. When the hock has simmered long enough, take it out of the broth and set it aside to cool on a platter.

Watch for stones as you pick the split peas over carefully and put them in a bowl or saucepan. Rinse them until the water is fairly clear, then drain them in a colander and put the peas in the broth. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the soup for about forty minutes.

While the peas are cooking, peel two medium potatoes and cut them into a quarter to half inch dice. Peel or scrape the carrots and slice them into quarter inch rounds. I like to cut larger carrots in half and slice them into half rounds. Peel and chop the onion fine. You should have about a cup of chopped carrots and onion and a cup and a half of diced potato. Since I like carrots, I sometimes have more than a cup of those sweet veggies.

Put the vegetables into the pot, add the bouillon, the bay leaf and about an eighth of a teaspoon of ground cloves. Grind some black pepper over the top and stir well. Simmer the soup for about thirty minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add water if the soup seems too thick. As the soup thickens, it will stick to the bottom of the pot. Stir it often to prevent scorching.

While the vegetables are cooking, discard the skin, fat and bones of the hock and chop the meat into bite-sized pieces. Stir them into the soup.

Taste the soup when the vegetables are tender. If it needs salt, you can add another bouillon cube or a teaspoon of instant bouillon, stir well for a minute or two, then taste again. You might also want to add more black pepper. Use your judgment, but as Jerri often reminds me, “You can always add more salt and pepper, but you can’t take them out,” so be cautious.

Serve with good bread or rolls and a salad for a nutritious and healthful dinner.

NOTES: You can turn off the heat under the broth when you remove the hock and finish the soup later. If you are going to serve the soup within three hours, just set the pot in a cool place. If it will be longer than that, refrigerate the broth and bring it back to a boil about an hour and a half before you plan to serve the soup. It is easier to remove the meat from the hock while it is still slightly warm. You can put the chopped meat into the broth before you reheat it.

My mother used pork hocks and ham bones interchangeably when she made soups. She often saved the skin from the ham and simmered it with the bone to add flavor to the soup.

This recipe makes enough soup to serve six to eight hungry diners, but it keeps well for two or three days in the refrigerator. If you want to eat it “nine days old,” store it in the freezer.