I was in my early 20s before I ever tasted split pea soup. It was at one of the better restaurants in the dinky town where I had my first newspaper job. It was a cafe decorated in country kitsch. But not that country-blue-and-duck theme. It was an updated twist with lots of reds, blacks and whites and the classic camping enamelware dishes. They had great soups and sandwiches, and a group of us young news reporters would escape on dreary Northwest winter days for a long lunch to gossip and bitch.
It was at this cafe that I discovered I really loved split pea soup. It felt like a hearty soup for a cool day -- thick and rich with an appealing simplicity. And it is simple. It can be made with merely water, dried peas and seasoning. But add a few more ingredients and this humble dish can be elevated to a great meal.
Ham is the classic pairing with this soup, and smoked ham hocks would be a lovely addition.
I made a version by frying a few slices of bacon. Then I caramelized onions in the bacon drippings and reserved both ingredients for later. Deglaze the pot with stock and add the peas. Cook on a low heat, slowly bubbling for about an hour. Season soup as needed, and finish off with a little milk or half and half. Crumble bacon and warm it along with the onions. Top soup with a generous mound of the sweet onions and salty bacon. I also added some small croutons made with some leftover bread, olive oil, salt and pepper.
The dish was a welcome meal on a cool night, and the richness of the simple ingredients made it feel like a dish far from its humble roots.