Monday, January 10, 2011

Quebecois split pea soup

I first had this in the Binerie Mont-Royal, a great traditional diner in Montréal where it's one of the signature dishes. It doesn't look like much. In fact let's be honest: it looks like sick. You could probably fix that by adding something to make it more yellow, such as saffron or turmeric, but on the other hand that would give it a flavour that you don't want and generally tart up this humble working-class soup into something that it ain't, eh? The this-side-of-the-Atlantic version is of course pea and ham soup, which is a decorative green colour with flecks of red from the ham, but this one is for hardcore cold weather people who like their peas split, yellow and dried. It's extremely warming on a cold day.

You will need:
1 packet (500g) of dried yellow split peas
1 smoked ham hock - butchers often have these, they're dirt cheap
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
handful of thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 spoonful of vegetable stock powder (or use actual vegetable stock, if you have some)

1. Pick out and discard any dodgy-looking peas, rinse the rest thoroughly and soak them overnight. You could also soak the ham hock in water to remove some of the salt, but you don't have to.

2. Place the peas, ham hock, onion, celery and herbs in a big pot and add about two litres of water (or veg stock), which should cover it all. Bring to the boil and simmer, skimming off the scum which will certainly rise to the top. If you're using vegetable stock powder, add it after you've skimmed off the scum.

3. Simmer for about 3 hours, or until the peas are soft. After about two hours, take out the ham hock, which should be a lot softer than it was, and remove the skin; take the meat off it (you don't have to cut up the meat, it'll get chopped up later) and return it to the pot with the bone. Simmer for another hour. Remove the bay leaf, which has done its work

4. At this point it won't look great. The liquid will be a muddy brown colour and the peas will have sunk to the bottom. There will also be big, tough, salty chunks of ham in it. You know what this needs? A blender.

5. How liquid you want this soup to be is partly a matter of taste, but it should be pretty thick. I suggest you strain the soup into a bowl, saving the liquor, and blend the peas/ham chunks/other bits in batches in a blender until they are a thick puree. Then you can mix the puree with the liquor until it's the way you like it. Reheat it in the pan, check for seasoning (although the one thing it shouldn't need is salt, which the ham will have provided all by itself) and serve. You won't need to serve chunky bread with this. It mops itself up.

6. This will make enough for about six people. It freezes well, and if you make too much, it's even better the next day. If you chill it, you'll notice on taking it out of the fridge that it's turned to a stiff sludge. (I'm really selling you on this recipe, aren't I?) This is not because it's full of congealed fat, at least not if you were skimming it properly, but because the ham hock has oozed gelatin into the soup and the gelatin has solidified. This recipe isn't actually the one they use in the Binerie, as far as I know, but it's authentic. I got it from Traditional Quebec Cooking by Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny, with one difference, that Mme Mongrain-Dontigny uses dried savoury and I used fresh thyme, not having any dried savory. Good book, btw.

Other things I consumed in the Binerie Mont-Royal were tourtière, which in this incarnation is a big pie filled with spiced cooked mince, and also bière d'épinette, which the owner made us drink because it was a local ingredient (although maybe he'd just bought a case and was desperate to shift it). Bière d'épinette isn't actually a beer but a soft drink flavoured with spruce. It has a unique flavour. Basically, it tastes like its primary ingredient is Flash Bathroom. Yes, it's piney-fresh and actually, kind of, moreish. Kind of. Tourtière, by the way, also exists in a posh version, Tourtière du Saguenay, which in Mme Mongrain-Dontigny's recipe consists of cubed pork, veal and beef/game, baked with potatoes and onions in a huge pie case for six hours. Mmm.

One other thing about the Binerie Mont-Royal: I only realised when we were leaving that we'd shown up ten minutes before they were due to close for their afternoon break. Despite this, the owner not only made us welcome but cheerfully served us a three-course meal. A great place. If you're going to have lunch there, make sure you did something strenuous that morning and that you're not doing anything too strenuous that afternoon. If you're just looking for a quick bite and are not vegetarian, you should check out Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen on 3895 St-Laurent, and experience the melting deliciousness of their smoked meat and the celebrated rudeness of their waiters.

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