When I became a vegetarian 25 years ago, I gave up certain favorite foods including pepperoni pizza, bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches and, alas split pea soup.
While I am perfectly happy with cheese pizza, who wants to eat a tomato and lettuce sandwich? And, really, what's split pea soup without a hambone simmering in it?
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It always seemed to me the salty and smoky bits of ham were the star of split pea soup, adding flavor, texture and richness. Split pea soup without ham is like nachos without jalapeņos. What's the point?
Still, people have been eating split pea soup since between 500 and 400 B.C. The ancient Greeks even bought pea soup from street vendors and I'm guessing it wasn't always made with ham or any other cured meat. In fact, remember that 16th century English nursery rhyme?
Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old
Nine days old? I am fairly certain there was no ham in that version either.
Ham or no ham, I had a hankering for the thick green porridge so I decided I needed an attitude adjustment.
My first step involved cooking just plain old split peas -- as in split peas and water. That's it. No carrots. No potatoes. No onion. Just split peas and water. So I combined two cups of green split peas and six cups of water and brought it to a boil over medium heat. Then, I turned the heat to low and simmered it, partially covered for about 45 minutes, adding more water, as needed. I pureed the soup with my immersion blender and added salt and pepper.
You know what? Plain old split peas are really quite delicious. There are no distractions and the peas have a delightful quality all their own. Add a handful of croutons when serving and you really are in business.
Still, there's always room for improvement so I tried a recipe from my soup bible, "Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread" by Crescent Dragonwagon.
What puts this recipe over the top is caraway seeds, which add just the right boost of nutty flavor to the soup. Of course, the great thing is you can always add the ham back in. To make the carnivores in my family happy, I simply divide the soup in half and add one cup cubed ham to their portion.
• M. Eileen Brown is the director of innovation for the Daily Herald and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and is starting a blog, soupalooza.com.