Split pea soup is one of those things that I intentionally avoided for the first 27 years of my life. No matter how you slice it, it’s just not pretty to look at. Add some croutons or a dollop of sour cream if you want, but you’ll find it’s nearly impossible to disguise its unattractive, dull green hue.
In addition to this soup’s homely appearance, I also thought of it as essentially pea puree, an adult version of baby food, if you will, which was not exactly an appetite-whetting image. It seemed like a dish of a bygone era; something that was enjoyed by a prior generation and was surely on its way out.
Ah yes, that’s very well, Miss Christie, you might be thinking, but then why are you sharing it here? Well, you see, friends, things have been changing in our household. Unexpected medical bills have put pressure on our budget, and I’m working hard to reduce our grocery expenditures. One of the ways that I’ve elected to do this is to cook up a pot of beans once a week. Lentils, black beans, and white beans are all well within my culinary comfort zone, and yet, in the midst of the grocery store, eyeing the selection of dry beans, the split green peas jumped out at me.
With an appearance eerily similar to lentils, only with the telltale differentiation in color, I thought maybe this is something we could work with. Perhaps with a little finessing they wouldn’t be so bad, and if we were really going to be increasing our legume intake, some variety would most certainly be in order. Without another moment of consideration, I tossed them in the cart, carried them home, and treated them just as I would my little lentil friends.
And you know what? They weren’t half bad! Yes, they do have a mild pea flavor, which my husband doesn’t love (peas in their traditional form are one of the only foods he has bidden me never to serve him), but since he ate several servings of this dish, I’m calling it a success!
The key to tasty lentils or split peas or really any legume for that matter, as I have learned, is to add in additional flavors. They aren’t much to speak of on their own, but a strong foundation of aromatic vegetables and the smoky rickness of the ham hocks are just the ticket to transform these lackluster pebbles into something truly scrumptious. A generous spoonful of thyme imparts an earthy aroma that I adore, and while the garlic and bay leaves don’t stand out in particular, they fill in the gaps of flavor, building the dish’s complexity in subtle ways.
The simple recipe below has turned me into a split pea-believer. When paired with a slice of fresh artisan bread, it made for a perfectly satisfying winter meal.
All I am saying is give split peas a chance.
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup finely diced onion
- 1 cup finely diced celery
- 1 cup finely diced carrot
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 6 cups chicken stock plus more if needed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 2 ham hocks
- 1 pound green split peas, rinsed
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Croutons and sour cream, for garnish (optional)
- Heat a large pot over medium high heat, then add the olive oil, diced onions, and a pinch of salt, and saute 5 minutes until the onions begin to soften. Add the diced celery, carrots, and garlic, and saute 5 minutes more. Remove the cooked vegetables from the pot and set aside.
- To the pot, add the chicken stock, bay leaves, thyme, and ham hocks. Heat to boiling, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours.
- Stir the split peas and previously sauteed veggies into the simmering stock, return to a boil, and cook for about 45 minutes until the peas are soft and have just started breaking down (it's best not to overcook these guys, but since I don't care for them al dente, I keep them going until they reach a softness that I like). Keep the lid on while the peas cook, but stir the soup occasionally. If it starts getting too thick, feel free to add in a little extra chicken stock.
- Remove the bay leaves and discard. Remove the ham hocks, cut away and discard the outer skin, and pull the cooked pork away from the bone and shred into bite size pieces. Return the meat to the soup, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with croutons and sour cream, if desired.
Tips and Tidbits
- Lentils can be used in place of the split peas using the same preparation as above, and you can also use dry beans that have been soaked overnight (black beans, white beans, and pintos are my favorites) if you allow them to cook the entire time with the ham hock until they are tender.
- Since ham hocks do take a while to fully cook, you can omit it to hasten the cooking process. Chopped ham (I like to buy an extra around Christmas time and Easter when they are available and on sale, chop into cubes, and freeze for soups) or cooked bacon added at the end of cooking and heated until warm will give the soup a punch of flavor and protein.
- Since flavor preferences are individual and it is nearly impossible to ascertain precisely how much saltiness an ingredient like a ham hock will add to a dish, I almost always advise you to “salt to taste.” If this is confusing to you and you’re not quite sure how to tell if something is properly seasoned, I recommend checking out this article on salting to taste from The Kitchn. Super helpful!