Friday, January 3, 2014

Winter comfort food, part two

Well, Winter Storm Hercules was a kind demigod and only delivered a portion of the predicted snowfall in the Hudson Valley, but he brought with him a chill that is felt deep to the bones with temperatures falling far below zero tonight.

So this was the absolutely perfect day to serve a soup that seems to call for weather like this - split pea soup. To me, split pea soup is something that unless the temperatures dip lower than freezing, I find I usually don't have a desire to partake in it. (I know I must be in the minority as it is on menus all year long, but for me, it symbolizes winter comfort.) I began my preparations yesterday using - you guessed it - my slow cooker. This is actually the perfect way to prepare this soup that seems to call for time to meld flavors together slowly.

The first step was to heat the slow cooker on high for a few minutes adding about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil.

While that was heating, I chopped one medium onion and five cloves of garlic very finely. Once the oil was ready, I popped the onions and garlic in and stirred this mixture.

The second step was to add the spices to the mixture as it cooked down. I'm fairly eclectic about seasonings usually, but for split pea soup I usually err on the side of tradition - and keep the spices quite mild. I added paprika of course (there is very little this Hungarian girl will not add paprika to). About a teaspoon and a half of Kosher salt and another teaspoon of celery salt. Then I sprinkled everything with my winter favorite - Bell's seasonings that's still packaged in that fabulous paper box. I love both the spice and the way it appears. A true win win situation. The final spice was a dash of Herbes de Provence, my other standby in the spice cupboard.

Onto step three: while the onions and garlic continued to meld their flavors together with the spices, I sliced three rather large carrots into pretty thin circles then added them to the mix and stirred well. I then walked away for about 30 minutes and let the slow cooker do its stuff. That's why I love this kitchen appliance so much and can't believe what a snob I was when I was first given one 13 years ago. I think my comment was, "A crock pot? You know what you're full of! You're implying I can't cook, right?" And the conversation and relationship devolved from there. I've eaten my words, quite literally, since then and found that my slow cooker and I have a perfect understanding!

Step four adds immensely to the flavor profile of the soup, but feel free to omit if you're a vegan or vegetarian. Yes, I finely cube about five slices of smoked ham and add it to the mixture. This smoky flavor I find is what really gives this soup its character and really adds the oomph to the aromas that permeate the house while it is cooking. I use a pre-sliced smoked ham (perfect for sandwiches too), but you could use leftovers from ham that you prepared for dinner, etc. If that were in my refrigerator, I would have done so too.

When everything begins to glisten and the onions and garlic become transparent, you know you're on your way to a great basis for the soup. I walked away once again once the ham was added to the mixture (after stirring it in) and left it to simmer in the slow cooker for another 20 - 30 minutes. By this time my cats were doing a little dance as was my golden retriever as the scent of the ham mixed with all the vegetables was simply enticing - both to them and to me!

Step five is almost the last of the necessary preparation for this hearty winter dish. I added two pounds of dried split peas. You can find these loose usually in health food stores or simply buy them in bags in the grocery store. If bought there, I usually find the Goya brand in this area, but any will do well. Once the peas are added, stir well, and stir again so they become integrated with all the other goodness in the cooker!

The final step is to add the broth and water. I usually use about about a quart of chicken broth that I've either prepare ahead of time (I usually have some in the refrigerator) or one of the prepared versions that are available (I like to use the paper carton of organic chicken broth to cut down on preservatives, etc, that might be found in more commercial broths). Then I fill the slow cooker almost to the top with water, cover, and set it on low to cook throughout the day (if this is the morning) or overnight. Once everything has melded together and the peas are totally soft (no I don't blend this, but sometimes it looks like I might have), I add about a tablespoon of cider vinegar (I use Bragg's). I'm not sure why I started to do this, but have found it aids the digestion of this soup and adds something to the flavor overall. 

Now it's ready to serve. I usually toast some rolls or baguettes to accompany it. Today my neighbors enjoyed a bowl after plowing my driveway out. Instant hospitality and warmth - you can't ask more from food than that!

Enjoy and stay warm during this oh so cold winter evening!

*Remember this recipe is geared to a five quart slow cooker, you'll need to amend this recipe to the size you're working with at home.)