Winter. The older I get, the more I appreciate its spare beauty. That is one reason I can’t wait to get out of Dodge for the holidays. We slip out of Manhattan at the earliest opportunity and head for southwestern Virginia, to our corner of the Blue Ridge.
The first few days are hell. When it comes right down to it, I have no idea what to do with myself when I don’t have effortless internet access, let alone a plan, a list, a deadline or two or three. My husband, Sam, and my extended family understand this, and every year, they tease and ease me into a more relaxed state of mind with fireside dinners, a Christmas pageant filled with joy and tenderness, afternoon binges at the movie theater, a trip to the local Kroger—the wine aisle is superb—and long walks in the countryside. As far as I’m concerned, the best sort of walk always ends at a bookstore (or at least a place where I can pick up a copy of the New York Times), but I must admit that a windswept panorama isn’t half bad.
And this year, that’s when it hit me: What a relief it is to be free of fall’s urgency. There is the holiday frenzy, obviously, but what I’m really talking about is Produce Tyranny. The last of the tomatoes—well, almost—no, really! And then the thrill of the first frost-sweetened collards and kale and just-dug celery root. I love it all, and can’t bear to miss out on a thing, so in the kitchen, I’m at full throttle for months. Winter food, though, isn’t in a rush; it has nothing to prove. “You’re stuck with me for a while,” it says. “Deal with it.”
I know I’ll be dancing with impatience come late March and early April, but right now, I can’t (or won’t) shake the feeling that I have all the time in the world.
Which means it’s time to make soup.
Now because I’m feeling lazy and slow—or perhaps because I’m feeling lazy and slow—I’ve had a revelation of sorts. Think back to the winter lobster stew I wrote about in December. Remember the (counterintuitive) key to success was making it a day ahead of time?
Well, I think the same holds true for soup. I’d made a big pot of minestrone a week or so before Christmas and, as always, cooled it completely (to prevent souring) before covering it and tucking it in the fridge. Normally, I would have immediately frozen most of it, but at the time I was in a terrible rush, and so the soup sat in the fridge for two days before it made it into the freezer. When we finally got around to eating it, earlier this week, it was amazing—the most flavorful minestrone I’d ever made. Go figure.
I suspect the same will be true of this split-pea soup. As you will see, it’s very basic, but shreds of ham give it lushness and smoky savor. It is wonderful with rye-bread croutons.
Split-Pea Soup with Ham
Serves about 8
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium-large onions, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced crosswise
3 medium carrots, thinly sliced crosswise
1 pound green or yellow split peas, picked over but not rinsed (otherwise, they can clump together)
1 bay leaf and a couple of thyme sprigs tied together with kitchen string
8 cups water
A meaty ham hock or ham bone
1. Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions, celery, and about one third of the carrots, and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened (take care not to let them brown). Rinse and drain the peas. Add them to the pot, stirring to combine and coat them with fat. Add the herbs and cook about 1 minute.
2. Add the water and ham hock, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil; skim off the froth. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the soup, partially covered, until the meat on the ham hock is tender and the peas start to fall apart, which usually takes a good hour. Toss the rest of the carrots. Simmer until the carrots are just tender and the peas are pleasantly sludgy, about 15 minutes more.
3. Fish out and discard the herbs. Transfer the ham hock to a cutting board. When it’s cool enough to handle, discard the fat and bones and shred the meat. Stir the meat into the soup and reheat before serving.