Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Split Pea Soup with Lovage

The best split pea soup I ever had was in Sweden in the region of Värmland at a village moose hunt, mainly consisting of a bunch of geriatric men with guns, as well as our group of city folk. At a hunt like this, the men with the guns, shooters, sit at designated stands in the forest. Those who don’t shoot, beaters, walk in a long line through the forest which moves all the animals ahead of them toward the shooters. Theoretically, the shooters are supposed to shoot in the opposite direction of the beaters and the shooting stops as soon as the beaters pass the hunters. I was basically dependent on a bunch of old grouchy men to curb their shooting instincts in favor of safety…and when it is farmers against city folk, one cannot be sure that safety will win out.
As a beater, one tries to walk at a medium pace and check in regularly by yelling to make sure you are still in a line, since you normally are just out of viewing distance of your fellow-beaters. Further, you have a designated place just after the shooters in their stands where you stop walking and meet up with the others. Well, during this particular hunt, the terrain varied quite widely, so there came a point where I had to walk up some hills. I yelled out to check that I was in line, but received no answering calls. I thought that due to the hills, I must have fallen behind the others, so I increased my pace and in a few minutes called again. No answer. After walking about fifteen minutes without hearing anybody else, I reached what I thought was the check-point, a small stream with a meadow beyond. So I stopped and waited. And waited. And waited. No one materialized. After about an hour of pacing at the edge of the meadow, I realized that no one would come and that I was lost.

I had been warned about getting lost because these forests extend unbroken all the way to Norway. If I walked in the wrong direction, I could walk for weeks without seeing anyone! The best plan would just be to sit tight and wait for them to find me. So I sat down on the damp ground and waited. Finally after what seemed an eternity, I couldn’t wait anymore and thought I would just explore my immediate surroundings. I headed toward where I thought there might be a road and was lucky enough to almost immediately see a large tractor heading down the road--one of the local farmers who had been dispatched to search for me. I hitched a ride with him back to the group where they were having pea soup and sandwiches for lunch. I was cold, my socks soaked wet from wading through small streams, and that pea soup was hot and fragrant and damn good. I ate two bowls.

As it turned out, as I started climbing those hills, I had passed the check-point, which was not a stream at all, a mistake due to poor translation from Swedish to English. And I had even passed one of the shooters who watched me climb up the hill as he said “like a bat out of hell”. Irritated, I asked angrily why the shooter hadn’t called out to tell me I had passed the checkpoint. It was explained to me that the man could not speak above a whisper-like croak, so I would not have been able to hear him in any case. Of course, the shooters have walkie-talkes, so he COULD have told the next shooter over...but I guess he just figured let the city girl walk...The final score however, was one to the city folk, and zero to the country geezers....Peter shot the only moose at that hunt!
In Sweden, pea soup is made from whole dried yellow peas and generally cooked with some kind of pork which is then sliced and served with the soup. Traditionally, pea soup is served with pancakes for dessert on Thursdays. These pancakes are thin and crepe-like, served with jam and whipped cream. Delicious. My pea soup is flavored with lovage, an old-fashioned herb which is related to celery. If you want to use this herb, you will probably have to grow it yourself. Lovage has a very special and strong flavor which is celery-like but more aromatic and flowery, almost lavender scented. If you don’t grow lovage, you can just leave it out. It won’t have the special flavor that I like in this soup, but it will still be a fine pea soup.

2 cups split peas

1 smoked ham hock
2 quarts water
1 onion, chopped
4 medium carrots, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium stalks lovage, chopped including leafy ends
2 stalks celery, chopped
4 sprigs each fresh thyme and oregano or ¼ tsp of each dried
1 bay leafSalt and pepper to taste

Rinse peas and take out any obviously bad ones. Put peas in pot with water, bring to boil and simmer for a few minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand one hour. Saute onions, carrots, celery, and lovage in the oil in large soup pot, until the vegetables soften and the onions are translucent. Add the ham hock and other herbs and a few grinds of pepper. Pour in the cooled peas with the cooking water. Bring to boiling and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook until peas are soft, and the ham is falling off the bone, about 2.5 to 3 hours. It is important that you do not add salt until soup is done and you have tasted it! You can also add some more water at this point, if you find that the soup is too thick.

About the ham hock: The one tricky aspect to this recipe is the salt content of the smocked ham hock. If the hock is very salty, you should rinse it before using to take off any salt on the outside. You may also want to double the amount of ingredients to ensure that the final soup is not too salty, particularly if your ham hock or bone is large. To serve, you can either leave the whole ham hock in the soup, forking a chunk off for each serving, or you can remove the hock and dice up the ham and put it back into the soup.

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