November 9, 2009

Splendid Split Pea Soup


Sadly, I learned upon returning from my honeymoon that the local branch of my library closed and the iron gates outside will remain locked for two years during renovations. I love that library. I love its creaky old wooden floors, the open second floor, the inoperable fire place. This news was devastating to me, but I decided to face the future by walking to the main branch on a gray Thursday. I put on my pale swingy coat with big black buttons that makes me feel like Catherine Deneuve, wrapped a vintage silk scarf around my neck and headed off in my sensible red clogs. On the way, I passed a bodega with an enviable selection of flowers. The branches of bittersweet looked like a Chinese painting of berries in the snow with its sudden shock of red. I stopped to look at dahlias, considered the $8 price tag, and settled for getting them on the way home if I their dark velvety petals still seemed like a necessity. As I was walking along, I glanced up a brownstone-lined street flush with turning leaves, and a school bus drove by. I hadn’t set out to have a quintessential fall day, but it was turning out that way.

And then I stepped out of the wind and into the library. The quiet hush of studious productivity reminded me of college days settled into library armchairs in front of snowy windows. I was in heaven. Then I started to browse, which I never do at the library, and here’s the Duh Discovery of the Week: the library cookbook section blows your bookstore’s out of the water. There are shelves of cookery books that are old, unpopular, out-of-print, strange, delightful, and deeply charming. They also have Rachael Ray, of course, but it is all the other books — the slim volumes devoted to the cooking of Massachusetts and old, hard-to-find favorites that won my heart. There, between the stacks, I fell in love with one such charmer: The Supper Book. Filled with delightful illustrations, historical context, and personal asides, Marion Cunningham, who revised and updated Fanny Farmer, fills her cookbook with the single-course suppers that are simple, honest, and good. On my day in the library, tucked out of the weather’s way, nothing seemed more appealing than a bowl of her split pea soup, and the timing couldn’t be better — this marks the beginning of National Split Pea Soup Week. Though split pea soup won’t be winning any beauty contests, it does have a certain humble, unassuming appeal that makes it one of the coziest soups for fall.

Let me leave you also with a sense of her voice and her thoughts on dinner for one which convince me Cunningham is a kindred:

Sometimes eating supper alone feels private, quiet, and blessedly liberating. You may eat anything you want; you needn’t be conventional. I like a baked potato with olive oil and coarse salt and pepper followed by vanilla ice cream, which proves to me that money doesn’t buy a good meal. One night not long ago I had freshly baked cookies and milk, and found that uplifting.

Split Pea Soup
adapted from The Supper Book
Serves 4

Cunningham recommends serving this soup with dark rye bread and melon, a suggestion that makes me love her book all the more.

1 pound split green peas
1½ pounds ham hocks, or a leftover ham bone with a little meat attached
2 medium onions, chopped
3 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
8 cups water

Put the split peas, ham hocks, onions and celery in a soup pot, add the water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours. The soup is done with the peas are soft. Taste, add more salt if needed, and a generous grinding of pepper. Remove the bones and any skin from the ham hocks, shred the meat and return to pot.

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  • Truc: Hmm, hmm….I am wondering if my local newly-closed branch of the Brooklyn public library is your newly-closed branch of the Brooklyn public library! Nice to know we might be neighbors, with a liberal interpretation of the term.5 years ago

  • Would that be the branch on 9th Street and 6th Avenue? If so, howdy neighbor, and see you at the main branch!5 years ago

  • WannaBePinkTeri: I love this Split Pea recipe…will try this weekend when the weather turns from warm to cold again. I am envious of your perfect Fall day. I have yet to experience one this Season. I think I’m about due!!5 years ago

  • Lisa (dinner party): I’m sad about the library closing too. I know construction takes forever, but two years just seems so ridiculous.5 years ago

  • WannaBePinkTeri, It’s so simple but so delicious…and really, is there any better kind of recipe?

    Lisa, I know! Two years seems verrrry long.5 years ago

  • Julia (Color Me Green): arg yes i was so sad when they closed the donnel center in midtown for renovations – no more easy lunchtime walk to the library. i finally updated my brooklyn library card this weekend so i can pick books up from the main bklyn branch too!5 years ago

  • BethP: Oh, I have to admit, I’ve never been a big fan of that little library. It’s always so noisy when I go in! I LOVE the central library and go every Saturday and do my farmer’s market shopping afterwards. I highly recommend it!

    That soup looks just perfect. I think I’ll make it Sunday afternoon.5 years ago

  • Anna: Your descriptions transported me to that quaint street with velvety dahlia petals. Lovely!5 years ago

  • Fran: I have a frozen ham bone in the freezer – I might just make some split pea soup this weekend!5 years ago

  • Kelly: Yay for all of the library love! :)5 years ago

  • Kim: Ugh, I’m so bummed about the library! I’m almost finished reading all the books I buy but never read (re: my New Year’s resolution not to buy new books until I finish the ones I already own) and was intent on seeking my future literary conquests at the library. All I’m saying is it better be awesome in two years!

    Your soup looks lovely, in fact, I read this post while eating split pea soup and was jealous!5 years ago

  • Kim, don’t despair. You could always head to the Windsor Terrace or the main branch at Grand Army Plaza and do a little farmer’s market/library combo like Beth P.5 years ago

  • maureen: i JUST made split pea soup a few days ago–almost this exact recipe, but subbed a bit of bacon for the ham bone, and added carrots. just doesn’t seem like split pea soup unless it’s got orange carrot rounds here and there.

    and what’s on your toast in the picture above? i’m intrigued!5 years ago

  • rhonda35: I love “The Supper Book!” I’ve had it for 20 years and it is quite stained and dog-earred, adding to it’s intrinsic value in my mind! It is certainly that soup time of year and I’m glad you reminded me of that.
    I hope you had a wonderful honeymoon and wish you much joy and understanding in your marriage. Choosing to spend your life with another is a test of your endurance, patience and unconditional love, but it is, more importantly, an unbelievably satisfying, intimate and crazy ride! All the best to you and Sebastian.5 years ago

  • geek+nerd: Ha! I’m totally guilty of baking cookies for dinner!5 years ago

  • Maureen, It’s delicious melty cheddar cheese.

    Rhonda, Thank you for your kind wishes. We are very excited!

    geek+nerd, you’re another woman after my heart!5 years ago

  • Erin: The Fanny Farmer cookbooks are so warm and conversational. Nice find, Sarah!5 years ago

  • Jora: I just ordered this book. Thanks for the recommendation! xoxo5 years ago

  • caitlin: i am completely obsessed with taking cookbooks out of the library. i just recently moved to queens, and was really pleasantly surprised with the quality of my local library. plus, i have about 8 books on request from other branches. if someone were to look at my list, i think they’d conclude i was obsessed with food, friday night lights, and the sopranos. could be worse i guess.5 years ago

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