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 hard-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. And 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 Swiss 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 Soup with Grilled Cheese Croutons
For the soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
16-ounce bag of split peas
For the croutons
4 slices sourdough bread, cut into bite-size squares
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces smoked Swiss cheese, cut into thin slices
Heat a large, heavy pot (4 quarts or larger) over medium heat. Add oil. When oil is hot, add onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables have softened, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add split peas and 3 quarts of water. Bring soup to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for an hour and a half to two hours, until soup is thick. If soup becomes too thick, add more water to get the consistency you prefer.
In a mixing bowl, toss bread with olive oil. Spread bread on a cookie sheet and place 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 soup.
(Images: Stephanie Barlow)