Pick any basic American cookbook off the shelf and chances are there will be a recipe in it for split pea soup. I have comforting memories of the big pots my mom made once the Sunday ham was picked down to the bone. True to her New England roots, her soup was a thick porridge with chunks of carrots, onions, potatoes and Harrington’s cob smoked ham. Sunday ham is no longer in my lexicon, so I now make a creamy vegetarian split pea soup or add a meat flavored broth for a more traditional flavor.
Pea soup has a rich history including ancient Greece where it was sold on the streets. Both thick as pea soup and pea souper are idioms for a thick fog. This expression was first mentioned in literature around the time of the industrial revolution in London. Pollution mixed with London’s famous fog created a particularly dangerous chemical filled fog with a peculiar color. It’s an ironic reference for what is now regarded as the epitome of a cozy, comforting soup.
According to the Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook, pea soup is first mentioned in American cooking in the 1841 Good Housekeeper cookbook. In the book, Sarah Josepha Hale sites a recipe for “Old Pease Soup: Put a pound and a half of split peas on in four quarts of water, and roast beef or mutton bones, and a ham bone, two heads of celery, and four onions…” The New England Cookbook by Eleanor Early in 1954 confirms pea soup’s historical charm by suggesting it be served with johnnycakes. Other ideas from various cookbooks include adding ham, Polish sausage, linguica (Portuguese sausage) or even hot dogs (!)
Pea soup recipes are found throughout the world. The Swedish make a yellow pea soup called artsoppa. The Dutch have a famously thick vegetable laden split pea soup called snert. No joke. According to famed cookbook editor Judith Jones in her Book of New England Cookery, yellow split pea soup called habitant soup is common in Canada and among French-Canadian transplants in America.
Pea soup has always been noted as a food of the poor. When I was young, single and had a finite amount of money each week to spend on food, I could certainly relate to the 18th century nursery rhyme verse about eating “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, 9 days old”…a package of split peas seemed to make a never ending batch of soup for one. The UN gave grain legumes like split peas a place of honor as a food source by announcing 2016 as the International Year of the Pulses. The quality of abundance they offer the world is timeless.
It seems sneaky to make pea soup look anything other than pea green by adding things like spinach which also alters the flavor. I add frozen green peas before pureeing to enhance the green color and brighten up the flavor. This is the perfect soup to make for a green themed St. Patrick’s Day meal!
How thick you eat your soup or whether it is chunky or pureed is a personal preference. I have also included the option to make Vegetarian/Vegan Split Pea Soup.
New England Split Pea Soup
8 cups (2 quarts) chicken stock
1 smoked turkey neck or 1 smoked ham hock
½ cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc
2 bay leaves
3 large sprigs of fresh thyme
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1 Tbs olive or grapeseed oil
1 cup carrots, peeled and cut into ½” dice (about 3 carrots)
1 cup celery cut into ½“ dice (about 2 stalks)
1 cup yellow onion, cut into ½“ dice (about 1 medium onion)
½ cup leeks, white and green parts cut into ½” dice (about ½ of a leek)
2 cups red potatoes, cut into ½“dice (about 2 medium potatoes)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ cup dried split peas
3 Tbs chopped Italian parsley leaves
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp kosher salt
1 cups defrosted frozen green peas
- Before making soup: In 4 quart or larger pot add chicken stock, turkey neck or ham hock, wine, bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1½ hours. Set aside until ready to make soup. Refrigerate up to two days.
- In large 12” sauté pan over medium heat sauté carrot, celery, onion, leeks, potatoes, and garlic until soft but not yet browned, about 7-8 minutes. Add this mixture, parsley, pepper, salt and split peas to seasoned broth that has been set aside. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until peas are soft and falling apart; about 1 to 1 ½ hours depending on the peas. Add more water if needed to keep ingredients covered by broth. Skim off and discard any foam that forms on top of soup. Cool soup.
- Remove and discard *meat bone, bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Leaves from thymes will no longer be on stems. For chunky Split Peas Soup, warm soup and eat. *For chunky soup, bite sized meat pieces from bone can be picked off and added back in soup. For creamy Split Pea Soup, puree soup in blender with 1 cup green peas until smooth. Add more water if needed for desired consistency. Thickness is a personal preference and does not have to be pea souper thick. To serve, reheat over low heat until warm.
Vegetarian/Vegan New England Split Pea Soup Recipe:
- Replace chicken stock with water
- Omit smoked turkey neck or ham hock
- To add in a smoky flavor, add 1 tsp smoked paprika or a ½ tsp pure liquid smoke (find a brand with no additional ingredients) Vegetarian doyenne Deborah Madison’s 1997 Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone suggests adding mushroom soy sauce to her vegetarian split pea soup to deepen the flavor.