I grew up eating my grandmother's split pea soup, and it's one of the first things I learned to cook when I moved away from home. For this version, I omitted one harder-to-find ingredient so I can make it without a trip to a specialty store!
To me, split pea soup tastes like home. However, when I tried to replicate our family recipe on my own, I always had trouble finding a ham bone. My local grocery store just wouldn't sell me ham hocks or a ham bone. One Thanksgiving my mom actually packed one in her luggage to bring to me. I've tried making the soup with smoked ham hocks, only to result in a soup so salty a pound of potatoes couldn't rescue it.
Now, NYC is not a wasteland of specialty food stores; I'm sure I could find a butcher shop to solve the problem or purchase a whole ham and freeze portions. However, I wanted to try making this soup with ingredients I could easily pick up from my local grocery store. So I decided to try it without the ham bone.
I was surprised to find that this vegetarian version wasn't lacking in flavor at all. Slow-cooking the peas gives it the same velvety texture, and the bay leaf and vegetables keep the flavors traditional. Serving it with croutons adds an extra treat.
My grandmother always made her croutons in a stainless steel skillet with lots of butter, and it was my job to turn each piece of bread until just evenly browned. Here, I cut down on the hands-on time by making the croutons in the oven. I added smoked cheese to emulate the smoky, salty ham flavor missing from this version of the soup. Plus, who can resist mini grilled cheese sandwiches?
Split pea is one of my favorite soups, and I was pleasantly surprised that I also didn't miss the flavor smoked meats usually add. The grilled cheese croutons were also a fun touch, although if you don't want to monitor the broiler, you can just make two regular grilled cheese sandwiches and cut them into small cubes instead to use as the croutons.
Slow-Cooker Vegetarian Split Pea Soup with Grilled Cheese Croutons
For the soup:
1 pound dried green split peas
1 small onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 cups water
For the croutons:
4 slices sourdough bread, cut into bite-sized squares
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces smoked cheese, such as Gouda or mozzarella, cut into thin slices
Place the split peas in an even layer in the insert of a slow cooker. Add the onion, carrot, celery, oil, bay leaves, salt, and season with pepper. Add the water (no need to stir), cover, and cook until the peas are soft, 5 to 6 hours on high or 8 to 10 hours on low.
Stir the soup to incorporate the peas and broth, taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed.
Heat the oven to broil. In a medium bowl, toss the bread with olive oil. Transfer to a baking sheet and spread into an even layer. Place the cheese on about half of the pieces. Broil bread until cheese is melted. Then, sandwich pieces together and broil until golden brown. Serve hot with the soup.
Updated from a recipe originally published November 2010.