Last Word: It’s pea soup season
Winter is as much a jail sentence as a season. We’re holed up inside trying to stay warm and busy, for me this means, stoking the fire, reading, sipping scotch and making pea soup.
An ancient food, pea soup has found renewed popularity with the comfort food movement. It is an ideal food for shut-ins. It is simple to make but takes a lot of time – two days, if done right. With all this time looking over a pot, no wonder people improvise. The most unusual break from tradition is the use of pig’s feet instead of a hambone.
I start with a fully cooked ham shank and a few bags of dry pebble-like split-peas. They come in yellow, which is consistent with French-Canadian culture, and green, which is more prevalent here. Being married to a Canadian, I use both. I soak the beans together in water with a shot of Canadian whiskey to ease the assimilation.
In the morning, the little stone-like peas have softened a bit, but they are a long way from soft and even further from the mush they will become. I drain the water and bring the new water to a boil on the cook stove. From this point forward, I use the woodstove. It allows the heat to be used twice, and since tending the fire is my primary job, it’s convenient.
I add the peas, the hambone (with ample ham left), carrots, onion, celery, sometimes cabbage or a potato. I then place the pot on the woodstove to simmer and add my spices — salt, pepper, bay leaf, garlic and whatever else I can find. Next come two indispensable ingredients: black-eyed peas and scotch.
The black eyed peas do two things: they offer a nice regional balance and they give the soup an old salty taste that used to accompany hams. And scotch is not called the “water of life” without good reason. It has a significant medicinal value nearly equal to a flu shot and acts as a pasteurizer of sort in case a foreign object, like car keys or a fire poker, are accidentally dropped in the soup. It is also recommended that the scotch be tested carefully before and after to ensure it has matured properly.
At this point, I retire to the couch and allow the slow simmering process to take its course. There are no short cuts to making pea soup. Like a fine wine (or scotch,) it takes time to age. The soup should never boil. Feel free to take it off the woodstove and let it set for awhile. The goal is disintegrate the peas into a puree mush. After a few hours, take the bone out and remove any remaining meat, dice it and return it to the soup.
At this point, the soup is pretty much done, but you can determine whether you want “split pea soup” or “pea soup.” The former is removed from the heat sooner and is more watery and contains a few visible split peas and the latter is very thick.
At this season and state of mind, the process matters more than the product. Even my toddler son recognizes this, and calls it “heavy soup.” Very heavy indeed.
Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield teaches social studies at White Mountains Regional High School and assists in his family restaurant, the Woodburn House.