Sunday, December 4, 2011

War and Peas

I remember that my first positive experience with split pea soup was in December 1989.  My then boyfriend and I were driving our 1978 VW Bus to Altadena to spend the holidays with his brother.  As luck would have it, the grapevine had frozen over that year and the outside temperature was no longer an interesting fact but more a life and death struggle.  If anyone has ever owned a vintage (old) VW Bus, you are privy to the fact that the heater is more of a novelty than something to rely on to, oh I don’t know…keep WARM.  In addition to the ‘pilot light’ heater, the floorboards where the foot pedals came up from had a very visible hole around the perimeter of each pedal stick, to which you had a clear view of the…road, yes the road.  Normally, nothing too alarming in tepid Sacramento, but when driving in below freezing temperatures, your feet actually go numb from the constant onslaught of cold air.  At one point, we pulled off the highway and into a gas station to procure plastic bags.  My boyfriend then wrapped his socked foot in three layers of plastic bags before he stuffed them back into his shoes.

Finally, out of fear of hypothermia and gut gnawing starvation, we pulled into Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella.  Now mind you, neither one of us was a fan of split pea soup, but we were cold, tired, hungry and low on funds.  They had an all you could eat option…but ONLY for split pea soup with toppings.  SOLD!  We ate buckets of the stuff.  I can’t even say if we stayed and ate so long because we were that hungry or we were just putting off getting back into the bus.  Either way, I had a new found respect for split pea soup.  

We eventually arrived at our destination somewhere around 2:00 in the morning and found a note waiting for us. 

“Glad you made it!  But, since you are the last ones to arrive, you get to sleep on the sofa bed. Better luck next time. See you in the morning!”

I believe my spine had never recovered from the last time I had slept on that sofa bed.  Ironically, we opted to sleep in the bed, back in the bus. 

In the 20 plus years that have passed, I have seldom enjoyed a bowl of split pea soup as much as I did on that cold long night.  Not sure if it was a distant memory or the chill in the fall air, I decided it was time for a big pot of soup.  Here’s my take.

  • 3-4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 2 cups of chopped celery (include celery leaves)
  • 2 cups of chopped carrots
  • 10-14 whole garlic cloves
  • 3 pounds of smoked ham hocks
  • 3 teaspoons dried French thyme
  • 3 cups green split peas
  • 16 cups of water
  • Salt and Pepper
  • ½ cup of chopped fresh parsley.

Melt butter in heavy large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, garlic and carrots. Sauté until vegetables begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Add pork and thyme; stir 1 minute. Add peas, then water, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Partially cover pot; simmer soup until pork and vegetables are tender and peas are falling apart, stirring often, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Transfer hocks to a bowl.

At this point, some people elect to remove half of the soup contents to puree.  However, if you refrain from putting salt in the soup until it has completely cooked, the peas will take in more water and this will allow the peas to break down themselves.  I have never pureed this soup and it has always been a perfect mix of pea puree, vegetables and pieces of pork.

To complete, cut pork off bones, dice and return to the soup. Season with salt and pepper. Finish with the fresh parsley.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


As a society, we all seem to be rushed; packing too many things into too few hours. I often catch myself scurrying around, frantic to get it all done. It’s no wonder that when it comes to food, shortcuts seem to be inevitable and ultimately sought after. The idea of spending hours preparing one meal seems indulgent, archaic even. But there are some things that cannot be rushed. One of my absolutely favorite things to eat is something that takes hours and is only at its best when time and care are taken. Short ribs were once looked down upon; a lesser cut of meat that required moisture and hours to be edible. However, like many things; what’s old is new again. Short ribs are now a staple on any self respecting bistro menu. And having a well done short rib dish puts that stamp of approval on many people’s list. It’s important to understand that if a restaurant is willing to do the diligence to properly prepare short ribs, then you might be in the company of true food respect and artistry.

So, take advantage of the downtime during the cooking process and pour yourself a glass of wine. I have adapted my short rib recipe from Anne Burrell.

3 bone-in short ribs and 3 boneless short ribs (about 6 pounds)
Olive oil
1 large sweet onion, cut into ½ inch pieces
2 ribs celery, cut into ½ inch pieces
3 peeled carrots, cut into ½ inch pieces
10-12 garlic cloves
1 ½ cups (12 ounces) tomato paste
2-3 cups of hearty red wine (I tend to use a ratio of 3 parts red wine, 1 part port)
2-3 cups of water
1 bunch of thyme tied with kitchen string
2 bay leaves

Generously season each short rib with salt. Coat a large Dutch oven with olive oil and bring to a high heat. Add the short ribs to the pan and brown very well, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Do not overcrowd the pan. You may need to cook in batches; remove ribs if need be to a plate until you have finished browning them all.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

While the short ribs are browning, puree all the vegetables and garlic in the food processor until it forms a coarse paste. When the ribs are all very brown, remove them all from the pan. Leave a small amount of oil in the pan and add the pureed vegetables. Season with salt and brown them until they darken and from a crust on the bottom of the pan; approximately 5-7 minutes. (Onions often hold a good amount of water and this water may hinder the browning. If this is the case, add a teaspoon of sugar during the browning to aid in caramelizing the vegetables.) To assist in the browning, scrape the crust and redistribute to insure even browning. Add the tomato paste to the vegetables and brown paste mixture for 4-5 minutes. Add the wine/port and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze all the bits. Lower the heat to avoid burning the mixture and reduce it by half.

Return the short ribs to the pan and add 2 cups of water or more until the ribs are just covered. Add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover with a lid or tightly secured foil and place in the oven for 3 hours. Check the ribs during the cooking time to ensure that the ribs remain under liquid; add water if necessary. Turn the ribs over halfway through the 3 hours. During the last 30 minutes, remove the lid to release moisture, thicken the braising liquid and encourage additional browning.

Remove the pan from the oven and taste the braising liquid. If necessary, adjust the flavor by adding additional salt and/or sugar to balance out any acidity that may occur when tomatoes are included in a recipe.

I prefer to serve my short ribs over a basic soft polenta. They would also pair well with mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles.