Monday, January 24, 2011

the past, via split peas

After a lengthy hiatus, my friend Rose-Anne and I have tentatively resurrected our tandem posting project this week. We’re starting off easy, with recipes that remind us of people.

For me, there are a few dishes that sum up how I feel about cooking, about food, about what qualities—nutrition, comfort, deliciousness—I want the things that go into my body to have. Actually, they aren’t even dishes, they’re categories: bread and cheese (this can range from pizza to grilled cheese to cheese and crackers), beans and rice (a similarly diverse group), and soup. I could live from these three types of food for the rest of my life, I sometimes think, and die happy and well-fed and content.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in the wintertime soup is the clear winner, and oh boy, do I make a lot of it. Potato leek, potato and butter bean, pumpkin and black bean, lentil; creamy garlic—with five heads of roasted garlic, people—cream of broccoli, creamy garlic chickpea kale, sweet potato and chorizo: the list goes on and on. In other words, I love me a good bowl of soup, in no small part because on a chilly grey winter day it makes me feel like at least something good is coming from all that darkness outside.

The thing is, my thing for soup far predates my experience with Midwestern winters, and even my experience with knowing how to cook. In middle school and high school I was a highly OCD-style eater; I would eat exactly the same thing every day, and I had a number of regular foods ranging from specific flavors of ice cream to popcorn to Schwann’s apple flautas. (Good god, my parents loved the Schwann’s truck.) These were all foods I could make in the microwave, and I ate most of them on a daily basis. But aside from these snack foods, one of the things I loved the best was Campbell’s soup; I ate so many bowls of things like Chicken Mushroom Chowder and Steak and Potato Soup that sometimes I’m amazed that I survived into adulthood.

Now, of course, those soups are long gone for me; aside from the fact that I make my own, they virtually all have meat in them. (As recently as a few years ago I was devastated to find out that Golden Mushroom, a soup I loved as an adolescent and which I’d innocently believed to be vegetarian, was in fact full of beef fat. Blech.) But sometimes I get, well, nostalgic for those ready-made soups of my childhood. Recently I was dwelling on one soup in particular, Split Pea and Ham, and thinking to myself that when I made split pea soup it just never has the same clout; it always seemed a little bland, a little too gloppy and nutritious and...pea-y for true enjoyment. It didn’t have any depth and it always left me mildly disappointed, to the point where I just stopped making it. This winter, however, I had a moment of cooking inspiration that has moved split pea right back up to the top of my soup rotation.

The soup that I conceived of and later executed is so far above my previous split peas that they aren’t even in the same ballpark, and I owe it all to Rose-Anne. Last year she posted a recipe for Pasta Carbonara, and because she’s a vegetarian and an innovative cook she replaced the bacon that usually goes into the recipe with caramelized red onion coated in smoked paprika. Smoked paprika is not hard to get--you can probably buy it from your local grocery store if they carry McCormick spices--but it seems to be not often used, and I rarely see it called for in recipes. She and I discovered this spice together a few years ago during a series of dinner parties we used to put together, and I still remember the first time she opened the bottle for me, the intense whiff of smoke, rich and dark, that made me immediately want to put it in everything I ate. I think of her curiosity and excitement in that moment every time I use this particular spice. What, I thought to myself, if I transferred this bacon-esque onion idea to something else, like a soup? And so, Smoky Split Pea Soup was born.

This soup, then, is riddled with nostalgia: memories of good friend, cooking parties past, and gawky adolescents eating bowls of microwaved soup. It warms me to the core.

Smoky Split Pea Soup

Olive oil
1 large red onion, thinly chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 1/2 -2 tsps smoked paprika
4-5 peeled carrots, sliced into coins (approximately ¼ inch thick)
2-3 large or 5-6 small red-skinned potatoes, washed well and chopped into bite-sized pieces (no need to peel unless you want to)
6 cups vegetable broth
6 cups water
2 cups dried split green peas
1 tsp thyme (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot on low to medium-low heat, use enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot (2-3 tbs, perhaps more—you may need more than you expect in order to coat the onion) until it shimmers. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to brown. Add the garlic, sauté for a minute longer, and then add the smoked paprika. Stir to coat the onion evenly, and let sit for one additional minute. Add the carrots and potatoes and cover, letting them “sweat” for three or four minutes, and then add the vegetable broth, water, and split peas. Turn the heat up to high, give it a good stir, and cover the pot again. Once you hear it start to bubble, you can turn the heat back down to low. Let it simmer for about one hour, stirring occasionally, until the peas have begun to dissolve and the potatoes and carrots are very tender. Add the thyme, salt and pepper, and let bubble for five more minutes. Enjoy.


Rosiecat said...

Aw, friend, this post took me right back to that moment in Anna's kitchen, opening our maiden bottle of smoked paprika. What a great party that was, and what a great soup we made! And what good friends we have :-)

I'm totally making this new soup, and I'm grinning ear to ear tonight. Your words make me happy. (And so do your soups!)

Rosiecat said...

Adding the ingredients for this soup to my grocery list right now! Exciting :-)

Rosiecat said...

Wow, I'm ridiculous, posting three comments in a row here. But! I wanted to tell you I made and loved your soup. It does remind me of old-fashioned, comforting split pea soups with its deep flavor and cooked-down texture. Even thought it was an enormous batch, I had no trouble eating it all myself.

Thanks, friend! Also, last night I dreamed I was in your kitchen while you mopped the floor. Hmm...