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New England Pea Soup
By Charlie Burke

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We had a locally smoked ham over the holidays, and, as we always do, we
saved the bone with a fair amount of meat still attached. As much as we like
these hams (our favorite is smoked with corn cobs, not wood), I think we like
the pea soup we make with the ham bone even more. It is, like many or our
favorite recipes, made from simple ingredients whose flavors blend and result
in a dish where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I suspect the popularity of pea soup in New England dates back to the influx
of Les Habitants, French Canadians from Quebec who came looking for work
in our factories and mills in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Their food and customs became woven into the fabric of our culture, and every
family brought with them a recipe for pea soup. “Habitant” soup was on every
grocery store’s shelves in New England in the mid twentieth century, and,
when I checked  the Internet, I found it still available by mail order.

Salt pork was the flavor base in the original Canadian soups and still is used in
some recipes, but most now use a ham bone or a smoked ham hock. The split
peas now available no longer require soaking, so preparation of pea soup is
quick and easy. I’ve never seen a recipe which did not contain carrots and
onion; a few contain celery or garlic, but I  think these are later additions. I
doubt that dried thyme found its way into many turn of the century pots, but
we add a small amount. In spite of minor variations, the basic recipe contains
only chopped carrots and onion, along with dried peas, the ham bone and
water - another elemental recipe where less is more.

To make approximately 10 cups:

1 pound dried split peas (either green or yellow)
2 medium carrots, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola or grape seed oil
1 bone from a smoked ham (substitute 1 smoked ham hock)
2 quarts water
½ teaspoon dried thyme (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, then add the oil. Sauté the
carrots and onions until softened; stir to prevent browning. Add water, peas,
thyme and ham bone and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a slow simmer and
cook,  partially covered, for one hour or until the peas are soft.

Remove the bone and, when cool enough to handle, trim any remaining meat
and reserve it. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or in a food
processor or blender. Reserve one or two cups of the soup before blending and
mix with the blended soup if you wish to add texture. Add the reserved ham
and salt and pepper to taste.

This is a thick soup which thickens further if stored. To thin, add water or milk
to the4 desired consistency. Refrigerated, it stores well so a double recipe
provides quick meals for busy days.

This New England favorite makes a hearty lunch and, with a salad and some
crusty bread, is a welcome dinner as well, so give this healthy and economical
recipe a try. As I write this, sub zero weather is predicted for tonight, followed
by snow in the morning - weather my mother would have said is perfect for hot
bowls of pea soup!

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at
Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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