One of my favorite memories of early adulthood (i.e., the before-children era) is a time when the Bear and I were on vacation in California. He has deep familial roots there and we often visited to see his relatives. One year, we took a long driving tour up and down most of the state, from Long Beach, where we started, up through Yosemite and the Central Valley to San Francisco, and back down again, to San Diego, where his family lived.
One of our stops on the way back down was Andersen's Pea Soup, in Buellton, near Santa Barbara. This is a restaurant which specializes in pea soup, if you can believe it. I certainly didn't, until I saw it for myself and tried their soup, which was amazingly good. If you ever get the chance to go, you have to do it. The restaurant is adorable and rustic, and there's an interesting gift shop and bakery.
On our visit, we actually ordered our soup to go and sat outside the building to eat it. It was autumn and I think we were eager to soak up the sun and warmth there before we went back to our then-home in upstate New York.
I'm so glad we stopped there. I had always been a fan of pea soup, as my mother had made it when I was growing up, but theirs really stayed with me. It was the best pea soup I'd ever had. I experimented for a long time to make a pea soup that I could enjoy almost as much as theirs. I have worked out a recipe I like, which can be made on the stovetop or in the slow-cooker; I actually prefer the slow-cooker method. I think the flavors tend to develop a bit better.
It's wonderful to be able to use a ham bone for this soup, of course, for the deep flavor and rich broth the bone provides. But I like to make it with leftover bits of meat too. I make this fairly often in the weeks after Easter, as well as Christmas, since we typically have ham on both holidays. I would rather have a hot bowl of pea soup than a ham sandwich any day. With some crusty bread on the side, pea soup is one of my favorite meals.
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 carrots, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
1 pound of dried green split peas, rinsed and sorted
8 cups chicken broth (or appropriate water and bouillon)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1-2 cups chopped cooked ham*
Salt and pepper
Liquid smoke, if desired
*When I have a ham bone, I simmer the whole bone in the pot as it cooks, then remove it to take off any meat and put the meat back into the pot about an hour before serving, discarding the bone.
I start this slow-cooker soup the same way I do my others: by sauteing my vegetables in a skillet on the stovetop with a little olive oil. I find this imparts a much richer flavor to the soup than if I put raw vegetables in the slow-cooker with the other ingredients. This is not a necessary step, however; I prefer to do it, but if you're in a hurry, it's fine to start with raw veggies in your slow-cooker.
While the veggies are sauteing, you can prepare your slow-cooker liner. I like to spray mine with Pam no matter what I am cooking, just in case of sticking. I find that peas can be a bit sticky as they cook, probably because they contain a lot of starch. After spraying, place your dried (rinsed, sorted) peas in the liner.
The peas are just so pretty. I love the varied shades of green in them.
When the veggies are ready, place them in the slow-cooker with the peas and begin adding the next ingredients, through the bay leaves and thyme. Give it a good stir to ensure that the peas are mixed in; if they sit on the bottom of the pot, they tend to become a large, pasty clump.
Place the lid on and leave the slow-cooker to do its magic. I cook this soup on the HIGH setting for the first 2-3 hours, then I turn it down to LOW for another 4-5 hours. I find this helps the peas cook more thoroughly. Pea soup with still-crunchy dried peas is not good eating. Trust me.
Keep in mind that I have an older, base-model slow-cooker (like this one, only mine is so archaic as to have been made before they added the "Warm" setting), so you may have to experiment to see which temperatures and times work best with your own individual slow-cooker.
About an hour before serving time, I will add my reserved chopped cooked ham. I usually do this in a medium dice; I like having real bites of meat in the soup, as opposed to shreds. And if the ham is already very tender, it can fall apart more easily in the boiling soup. But it still tastes good, so chop to your own preference.
See my note above for variation with a ham bone; you would want to allow some time for the ham bone to cool off before handling it to remove the meat. I also find that a cooler ham bone sometimes gives up its meat a little more easily, though the meat is often very loose either way.
If you like fat in the soup, feel free to add fat, either off the bone or from your cut-up meat scraps. I usually let a little bit get back into the soup. It will melt into the broth. I think it's delicious. Give the soup a good stirring to make sure there's no pea paste developing on the bottom (the peas tend to settle out of the broth as they cook).
At this point, you should also taste the soup for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired. You can also add liquid smoke at this point if you feel your soup needs it; occasionally I will use some. I don't really measure it; the brand I use has a "shaker" lid on the bottle, with holes cut out. I usually find that two "shakes" imparts plenty of smoky flavor. With liquid smoke, you could feasibly make this a meatless soup, but I don't feel there's quite enough richness of flavor without some meat.
After the soup has simmered about an hour with the meat in it, it's time to eat. Stir well before serving, to reincorporate the peas as before, and serve.
This particular night, we had crusty sourdough bread with our soup. But I also love to serve pea soup with corn bread. Something about the sweet-sour flavor of the cornmeal works really well with the smoky ham and starchy peas.
Everyone around here loves this soup and we always have seconds. There's enough for at least one lunch for the Bear to take to work with him as well. I'm a huge fan of slow-cooker soups, but this one is a true winner in my book. It's flavorful, hearty and satisfying. I hope you will enjoy it too.