Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pea Soup Memories

We lived for four years in College Park, Maryland when our kids were both in elementary school. I left at 7:00 a.m. every morning for my job in Washington, D.C. and returned just before six in the evening.

One evening our daughter met me at the door with a dreaded handout from school.

"Tonight's Medieval Night. We have to bring pea soup and we have to have costumes."

I don't remember why I was given such short notice, I just remember that my desperate "My kids will not suffer just because I work full-time" mom gene kicked in. I had exactly forty-five minutes before we had to leave for school. I took a couple of worn-out t-shirts, turned them wrong side out, cut out the sleeves, slit the front neck about six inches, poked holes on either side of the slit and laced seam binding through the holes. The kids slipped them on over their clothes, and voila! medieval costumes.

With a half hour to go, I took one look at the pea soup recipe and saw that it just wouldn't do (back in the Middle Ages they made stuff from scratch). There were three or four cans of Green Giant peas in the cabinet. I dumped all four of them in a bowl, mashed them with the potato masher, added a cube of bouillon and a lot of water, heated it up and voila! pea soup. DD looked at it doubtfully. DS was in first grade and couldn't care less (he would have been happy to stay home and play Freddie Fish on the computer), but we had pea soup.

"Where's your costume?" darling daughter asked, by this time a little awed, I think, and just throwing in things to test me.

With fifteen minutes to spare, I raided my collection of clothes from Africa and came up with a white cotton gauze number with a long skirt and fancy embroidery. I bet they were wearing these things in Ethiopia in the Middle Ages. Anyway, I put it on and off we went to medieval night. No one was any the wiser. I might have confessed to one of the friendlier parents at this tony private school that the pea soup was not made exactly according to the recipe, but the main point of this story is, Super Mom rode to the rescue on her white horse. Again. Oh, wait a minute, that's not the point of this story. The point is, I learned something about pea soup. That last-minute concoction was actually pretty tasty.

Fast forward five years or so. On one of our many trips to the Hoosier state from overseas, I got a cookbook from my mother. It was a simple affair, with colored paper pages and comb binding, called "Skinny Cooks Can't Be Trusted," by a fellow named Dave Kessler. I added it to my cookbook collection, and the first thing I remember trying is a recipe called "All American Split Pea Soup." This recipe marks the beginning of my like affair with real homemade pea soup, not exactly the way it was made in the Middle Ages, but close.

Still, Dave's recipe needed some tweaking. For one thing, you know how I hate recipes that use ALMOST the whole package but not the whole package. Dave's recipe also calls for a whole stick of butter, when a half or three-quarters will work just as well, and a whopping four cups of milk. DH doesn't care for cream soups, so over time I have reduced the milk incrementally, until yesterday when I did away with it altogether. So, with all due respect to Dave Kessler, here's my version of this recipe, perfect for snow days:

Not Exactly Medieval Split Pea Soup

1 package green split peas
One box of chicken broth
As much garlic as you can stand (I use a clove or two)
One large onion, or two small ones if you like onions
Five or six carrots, or more if you like carrots, chopped into 1/4" pieces
Whatever celery you have wilting in your fridge, up to and including the whole package, chopped into somewhat larger pieces
Six potatoes, peeled and cubed
One-half to a whole stick of butter, depending on how much fat you want clogging your arteries and how much it takes to saute the carrots and celery
1 can cream of chicken soup, or you could probably leave this out and be just as happy
A package of Kielbasa sausage, sliced about 1/4" thick
Salt and pepper

Wash the split peas, then cook them in a big soup pot with the broth, garlic, onion and as much water as you think it needs. About forty minutes into the cooking, boil the potatoes in a separate pot and mash them up AND saute the carrots and celery in the butter. When the split peas have cooked about an hour and more or less dissolved, add all the other ingredients to them. Keep the pot on low heat for a while to coax the juices out of the kielbasa, stirring frequently so you don't end up with burned peas on the bottom of your soup pot. If you're really feeling like Supermom, whip up a batch of cornbread to have with it.

Yummy, filling and nutrient-rich, even if you do use up a lot of dishes to make it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Recipe Report - Super Bowls

I read somewhere that the reason the Italians traditionally eat lentils on New Year's Day is that lentils look like little coins, and eating them on New Year's Day guarantees an ample supply of money throughout the year. I'm not that superstitious, but I like even the most flimsily-supported traditions, and the Better Homes & Gardens recipe report is rapidly becoming one as well, so for today's New Year's dinner I prepared a lentil recipe from page 102 of the January 2011 BHG magazine, called Chunky Vegetable-Lentil Soup.

I immediately became disenchanted with the recipe because it called for one cup of lentils. Give me a break. Lentils come in a bag. Who cooks a single cup? I ignored this part of the directions and put the whole bag in, then compensated with an extra can of vegetable broth. The weirdest thing about this recipe was the pound of mushrooms it called for. Mushrooms and lentils are not an obvious marriage, kind of like Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley. I mean, really! Anyway, I dutifully cut the mushrooms into quarters, since I couldn't find any small ones, and followed the recipe as faithfully as possible. It called for a cabbage garnish, but my hungry teenage son came down to the kitchen near the end of the cooking and nixed the idea of topping the lentil soup with anything remotely smelling of cabbage, so in the end I served it unadorned with a side of cornbread.

The verdict? Edible. Probably very nutritious. Not terribly interesting. I forgot to take a picture, but it looked pretty much like the photo from the magazine, with more lentils and without the garnish. The mushrooms were still pretty firm and their flavor didn't seem to jell with anything else in the soup (lentils, carrots, celery, onions and garlic). If I ever make this again, and I'm not saying I will, I think I would slice the mushrooms thin and brown them in the olive oil at the beginning with the onions and the garlic. I'll probably just go back to my regular Hoppin' John recipe for future New Year's dinners, but who knows? Maybe next year BHG will have a recipe for lentils with peanut butter or something really yummy.