Friday, January 6, 2012

Split Pea Soup

by Sheila Connolly

Pease Porridge hot,
Pease Porridge cold,
Pease Porridge in the Pot
Nine Days old,
Spell me that in four Letters?
I will, THAT.

This is the earliest recorded version of Pease Porridge Hot, found in John Newbery's Mother Goose's Melody (c. 1760).

Here at MLK we seem to have a tradition of offering split pea soup recipes in January, and who am I to scoff at tradition?  Besides, there's a practical reason: we had a ham for New Year's.  There are three people in our family.  The ham weighed maybe six pounds.  Do the math:  no way three people could consume six pounds of ham, even after a few recycled meals.

But!  There is a ham bone, and to me that means split pea soup.  After all the wonderful (butter and sugar rich) cookie recipes we've been wallowing in lately, it's almost a relief to return to something simple and earthy—and maybe even healthy for us. All the recipes are good, but this is definitely the simplest one, and now that the holidays are over, I'm definitely in the mood for simple!

This kind of pea soup (aka pease porridge or pease pottage) seems to have a life cycle of its own.  At heart it is very plain:  dried peas, a pork product (salt pork, bacon, sausage or leftover ham) if you're not a vegetarian, salt and pepper, and water.  What I did notice is that if you google contemporary soup recipes, they started out with the basics (back in the 1990s) and then the industrious and/or bored cooks starting adding things—mostly spices, but also an occasional other vegetable.  Much as I love spices, now and then it's nice to go back to fundamentals.

I have an 1846 cookbook, called Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book (which, the author tells us, was a supplement to her Treatise on Domestic Economy).  It is replete with recipes that we'll probably never need (I don't plan to cleanse a calf's head and feet any time soon, and I'm still trying to figure out what Ivory Dust is—not soap, I'm fairly sure, because it went into a sauce).  There are also plenty of good plain recipes, including two for split pea soup.  Guess what:  Miss Beecher's recipe is pretty darn close to the modern ones.

Here's the basic modern recipe for Split Pea Soup:

1 lb split peas (yellow or green)
2 qts (8 cups) water
½ lb meat:  salt pork, ham bone or leftover ham
5 onions, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Herbs of your choice

Rinse the peas (aren't you glad you don't have to soak them overnight any more?) and put them in a 6-8 qt havy pot with water, the ham bone, and half of the chopped onions.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the peas are tender but not falling apart, 1 to 1 ½ hours. (Not that there is no salt in this yet—cooking the dry beans with salt makes them tough.)

Cook the remaining onions in butter over moderate heat until softened, about 10 minutes.  Add to soup along with salt, pepper, and herbs and continue simmering, partially covered, until the peas are falling apart and the soup thickens, another 1 to 1 ½ hours.  Remove any remaining meat from the hambone and add it to the pot.

This can be varied in countless ways. You can replace some of the second batch of onions with leeks.  You can use stock instead of water (and you may need to add water after it's done cooking because it tends to thicken). I've been known to add shredded carrot for the second simmering because it adds a nice touch of color.  You can add smoked meats or bacon.

And I'll bet you that it won't last nine days!


  1. MMMMM, delicious Sheila! I'm making a pseudo vegetarian version with tons of onions, carrots, and celery--actually gave away my ham bone! Then I like to garnish at the end with chopped cilantro and a dash of sesame oil. And serve with biscuits and salad. Ahhhhh

  2. It's funny that simpler dishes appeal to us so much after the holidays. I'm looking forward to soups and stews. This sounds delicious. Add a slice of crusty bread and it's dinner on a cold winter night. Love it!

    ~ Krista

  3. Sheila, this looks like the perfect winter soup. I bet it's like most soups, better the next day for lunch.

    Lucy, I have never heard of adding sesame oil. I will have to give that one a try. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Love pea soup now that I'm old enough to appreciate it. LOL. My recipe is similar but I do it in the crockpot and it works out great. So nice to come home to after work!

  5. Perfect timing. Our ham bone is ready. Great culinary history notes, too. Unfortunately, "Pease Porridge Hot, Pease Porridge Cold" will now be playing through my head all weekend. :)

    ~ Cleo